David B.




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April 23, 2009

J.G. Ballard: A Visionary Leaves Us, But the Atrocity Exhibition Continues


It seems a strange and ironic thing to think of J.G. Ballard in the past tense.


The visionary British author, who died this past Sunday at the age of 78, always seemed to reside in the near future, rather than the present. His books, stories and reportage seemed to be dispatches from time’s front lines, firsthand accounts of the looming horror creeping ever closer to the edges of our increasingly uncomfortable contemporary lives.


His passing seems ironic in light of the fact that the nightmarish brave new world of ecological ruin, consumer ennui and murder as entertainment is only now coming fully to life, and it leaves us without a reliable correspondent capable of warning us of the next round of incipient perils lurking just beyond the horizon.


“This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” With these words, a clueless editor once consigned thousands of already-printed copies of Ballard’s landmark short story collection The Atrocity Exhibition to the shredder or the landfill in a futile effort to protect the world from one of the most dangerous and uncompromising literary imaginations of the past century. But like the future itself, Ballard was inexorable, a force of nature: His voice, that of a media-age prophet heralding the advent of a new era of technological barbarism, was too clear and resonant to be silenced. Thus, in novels such as Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise and Running Wild, Ballard proceeded to extrapolate upon the psychological, social and technological trends already in motion to draw the outlines of the dystopic hell humankind was busy feverishly and blindly creating.


That is, the world of 2009: A world in which the mass of humanity toils senselessly and meaninglessly in service of grey corporate entities void of any purpose beyond their own profit and self preservation at all costs; wherein a bored and spoiled middle class fidgets uncomfortably in the glow of their flat-screen televisions, itching for some new, indefinable kick to reassure themselves that they are, in fact, alive; a world in which armed-to-the-teeth high school students slaughter their classmates for thrills and Sunday school teachers senselessly murder their children’s friends; a world in which a vast island of garbage roughly the size of Texas swirls ceaselessly in the midst of the Pacific Ocean; a world that has already corroded to the point where it cannot be bothered to care about its own slow suicide.


Were Ballard the sadist his harshest critics accused him of being, he would have left the Earth laughing, or triumphantly smug at having seen his most nightmarish visions realized. In actual fact, he was a writer of both courage and compassion. The unblinking narrative eye that stared horror full in the face in a novel such as Crash and dispassionately recounted its observations was that of a man both fascinated and horrified by the fearsome monstrosity that his species was inexorably evolving into, and who took it as his responsibility to offer a clear-sighted warning to the rest of us.


I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing J.G. Ballard in the early 1990s. Speaking with candor, grace and humility, this legend of British letters spoke by transatlantic telephone for some two hours to a minor-league reporter he did not know, willingly sharing ideas, insights and occasional laughter. Asked about life’s habit of imitating his art through dehumanization, senseless crime and collective mental malaise, he spoke ruefully and compassionately, his voice dropping at times. He had, as the Leonard Cohen lyric states, “seen the future and it was murder,” and had hoped against hope that the era of Dehumanized Man might not arrive quite so soon.


In the end, James Graham Ballard was felled by cancer, that most egalitarian and thoroughly modern of diseases – the gift bestowed by heavy metal-tainted water, toxic air, hormone-laced foodstuffs, and other unavoidable byproducts of the corporatist age. He’d had a successful career, a rich range of personal experiences, a long and productive life and a singular authorial talent that served as an inspiration and influence upon legions of his successors. It seems doubtful that he would have left this world with many regrets. In perhaps his final discomfiting gift, he leaves us with a lingering legacy of anxiety: We are left to navigate our own way forward into entropy without his singular voice to guide us, pointing out the pitfalls.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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