On the Spinal Highways of Imagination

Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara (eds.), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967 - 2008

Fourth Estate, 528pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780007454853

reviewed by Giovanni Vimercati

‘Let the world-dissolutions of JG Ballard stand as exemplary illustrations of the ways in which the imagination of a dying class – in this case the cancelled future of a vanished colonial and imperial destiny – seeks to intoxicate itself with images of death that range from the destruction of the world by fire, water and ice to lengthening sleep or the berserk orgies of high-rise buildings or superhighways reverting to barbarism.’

- Fredric Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future (2007)

Monomaniacal tendencies and self-obsessed anecdotage are fairly common risks the reader takes when delving deep into the life and work of a novelist. The reclusiveness that the profession to a certain degree requires does not always produce the most pleasant and interesting interviewees. A life spent in relative if not total isolation, a passion for the written word that often turns into deaf fixation, may not be everyone’s ideal reading subjects. Many writers and critics for that matter are better off writing that dialoguing.

The late JG Ballard, as this volume of collected interviews amply demonstrates, did not fit the aforementioned trend. Instead of literary fetishes Ballard cultivated an unpredictably varied set of interests ranging from the lyricism of medical reports, to the metaphysics of (post-)industrial landscapes, from the religious atavism of consumer culture to its latent totalitarian tendencies. Animated by a pungent curiosity the late British novelist fed on the seeming banality of daily life to capture the extraordinary aspects of ordinariness. Sceptical towards the deceitful embroidery of ‘surfaces’, Ballard detected the technical malfunctions and their affective symptoms in incubating social pathologies. Decades before mass technology became a daily presence in the life of (western) individuals, his novels narrated of very close worlds hijacked by fictions of all kinds. ‘We’ve got to recognise that what one sees though the window of the TV screen is as important as what one sees though a window on the street,’ he confessed to Lynn Barber in 1970. Self-expression, artistic endeavours and advertising were for Ballard concrete elements of the choreographic fiction of life rather than creative departures from it. His speculative fictions spoke to and of their times, not of faraway planets and implausible futures. In an early interview with George MacBeth he would in fact declare: ‘for me science fiction is above all a prospective form of narrative fiction; it is concerned with seeing the present in terms of the immediate future rather than the past.’

Ballard’s past had been a pronouncedly intense one, in 2003 he told Hans Ulrich Obrist while reminiscing his childhood and war time in Shanghai: ‘everywhere I saw the strange surrealist spectacles that war produces. It taught me many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the best guide to reality.’

After the war, he came to England for the first time; ‘a very small place, and rather narrow mentally.’ Far removed from the parochial and insular dimension British life and literature which he saw ‘summed up in that London Times headline fifty years ago or so: “FOG IN CHANNEL – CONTINENT ISOLATED.”’ Ballard lived and anatomised ‘a very puritanical country where the Protestant notion of moral progress comes to justify the elimination of everything that doesn’t accord with that rule’ as he put it to Tony Cartano an Maxim Jakubowski in a 1985 interview. It would be inaccurate though to perceive his provocative stances as mere instigations, on the contrary his critique was always grounded in profound, analytical observation (perhaps a legacy of his unfinished Cambridge’s medical training).

His earthly preoccupations, though fuelled by an astronomical imagination, are reflected in these interviews where the writer never loses sight of the very scientific matter of his fiction, let alone take refuge into his literary status. Reading through decades of colloquial exchanges one can ascertain his quest to detect the morbid symptoms leading ‘towards a realm of morally justified psychopathology’; today closer than ever.

In these interviews, as in his novels, Ballard experiments, tests and implicate the interviewer/reader in his lucid web of conjectures, intuitions and fertile provocations. His intellect is porous, open to contaminations of every conceivable kind, he does not impart lessons for as he admits to Robert Louit: ‘the author doesn’t know in advance what he’s going to produce. He loses his omniscience.’ Hence the exploratory character of his oeuvre in all its (non-)fictional tangents, open to interpretation, venturing into pathless directions. One of the merits of this collection – besides exhuming previously unpublished interviews and offering a chronological and conversational excursus throughout Ballard’s life and career – is to have translated texts from different languages. The reception of Ballard’s work is visibly nuanced according to the cultural milieu from which he is read - a fact he seems very much aware of as he remarks to Thomas Frick in 1984, when discussing his continental readership, ‘a lot of the youngsters who come to see me and talk about Atrocity Exhibition see it as a political work. To them, the voracious media landscape is a machine for political exploitation.’ He was right. The late Antonio Caronia for instance, the historical Italian translator of Ballard’s work was in fact a man of the extra-parliamentary left who had founded a magazine of science-fictional militancy in the late 70s named after the Italian title of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) (‘Un’Ambigua Utopia’).

It is only too normal for Ballard’s work to have found such a global and diverse following since the worlds he dissected and conjured up are now recognisably our own. When discussing with Jonathan Weiss, the director of the Atrocity Exhibition cinematic adaptation about the book’s main character(s), Traven/Travis/Talbot, Ballard remarks: ‘everything to Traven, the world, seemed coded, everything had to be sort of decrypted on the psychological plane.’ That is precisely what the novelist from Shepperton did with his books, taking as his patient the human condition in the advanced, democratic western world. Of the implosion of internal and external perceptions of reality, as well as the mortal struggle between life and meaning in the ‘suburbs of the soul’, he has been the most cogent narrator. A most singular and much needed explorer that through his journeys in inner space rendered back the blurring contours of outer reality in all their outlandish verisimilitude. But also, as he confessed to Simon Sellars in 2006, an unlikely humanist: ‘I think my work is superficially dystopian, in some respects, but I’m trying to affirm a more positive world-view […] to make something positive out of the chaos that surrounds [us].’
Giovanni Vimercati is a freelance critic whose work (often under the pseudonym Celluloid Liberation Front) has appeared in the Guardian, Sight & Sound, LA Review of Books, Film Comment, New Statesman, Cinema Scope, The Independent and others. He is currently completing a Master in Media Studies at the American University of Beirut.