Extreme Metaphors


Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J G Ballard 1967-2008 – edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara

The forty five interviews collected in this anthology are just a small fraction of those undertaken by James Graham Ballard over his half century as a writer. As editor Simon Sellar notes, he was unusually accommodating as an interviewee, accepting everyone from the greenest amateur fanzine writer to the leading literati of the age into the affable environment of his suburban home in Shepperton, way west of London, which as he told the Literary Review’s Peter Ronnov-Jessen in 1984 is “a very good place to work because I am reminded every moment of the day what the alternative to the imagination is” . What is even more unusual in these interviews is that, unlike most writers, the capacity for fascination is almost as great as in their written work – exceptional in their quantity, they are also outstanding in their quality. Sellars notes that he has been almost as enthralled by Ballard’s interviews as his books over the years, and that in their depth they denote

“a second sun, an enormous body of speculation, philosophy, critical inquiry and imaginative flights of fancy that comments critically on his writing, often explains it, and, sometimes, extends or even goes beyond it.”

That Ballard can be as enthralling as an interviewee as a novelist speaks to the core of his appeal as a writer. You do not read Ballard for his characterisation, the cold, blankly middle-class professionals who populate his books are calculatedly bland ciphers, which itself has put many off his work (including me for a while). You do not read him either for the rather secondary plots, nor, ironically enough for such niceties as metaphors…. You read him for the ideas, for the exploration of the modern consciousness for which he has so rightly been hailed.

The most common misconception about Ballard presents him as a grand pessimist of human nature. When the Tory grandee character in the recent edition of The Thick of It said the economy had “all gone a bit J G Ballard” he was invoking the common perception of a “dystopian” writer (indeed you will find the “d” word in any given short description of the man, and most longer ones). It easy to see how the label could stick to a man whose earlier novels dwelt around ecological catastrophes, whose middle novels dwelt on the most extreme psychosexual perversions, and whose later works centred on controlled cathartic violence.

It is wrong all the same. For a start, in the main his stories became less and less about the future, and more about a transposed present. The earliest interviews here are mainly for science fiction magazines, but he is quick to cast a scornful eye on contemporaries such as Asimov and Heinlein, let alone the prim fantasy platitudes of Star Trek and Star Wars (tellingly, he still embraces the term in interviews during his early years – noting that some texts by Burroughs, Orwell, Swift and Kafka could also be classed in this genre – but in later interviews comes to reject it as too limiting.)

More fundamentally, however, his outlook is that of an optimist, as he tells Sellar himself in one of his final interviews even his more grotesque works are trying to “affirm a more positive world view.“ Dystopians and satirists generally despise what they write about, whereas Ballard was truly in love with the modernity which he so uniquely chronicled and heralded. He sees a beauty in malls and concrete overpasses (describing one to Carol Orr in 1974 as “a motion sculpture beautifully constructed and designed….the ugliness resides in the landscape it is supposed to be desecrating, in these ancient, tilting, collapsing Victorian houses…”) Of course he is ambivalent, spending much of his fiction exploring the dark extremes to which people could be led by the perversion of instinct made possible by the machine age (to borrow Orwell’s earlier phrase on Dali). Yet the peculiar mental atmosphere his books capture is only possible due to the way he inhabits it wholly, without hostility or condescension. He is not a preacher, and not usually a satirist, but a kind of perverse evangelist. Ballard is essentially neither a science fiction nor dystopian writer, but a chronicler of the part of the present that we see every day but few authors explore, what he describes to Chris Hall as “the real England – the M25, the world of business parks and industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car rental forecourts.” The England most of us see every day in fact, but don’t think about. Here is someone who does think.

Ballard is the prophet of progress in its proper sense, the onward march of history in all its forms, and explores this stance in all the interviews down the years. This stance is utterly consistent amidst what one might see as contradictory attitudes in the interviews. A supporter of the greater social freedoms and reduced class distinctions of the 60s, and a defender of the “civilisation” of the post-war welfare state, he nevertheless came to admire the economic libertarianism of Thatcher for a time. Declaring the image of the car speeding down the highway the definite image of the 20th century, he proclaims “what we need isn’t fewer cars but more roads” in one of his final interviews , an advocate of nuclear power who teased Carol Orr “I’m not that opposed to pollution…..I feel there’s a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on it…….” and yet not shying in the slightest from the destructive potential in new technologies. His united thread is a contempt for nostalgia, for the hidebound England of old to which he always felt alienated, Shanghai born semi-foreigner that he was. His fascination was not so much for the future, but the limitless possibilities of the present.

But on the whole, he holds the view that humanity is progressing towards greater affluence, greater leisure, greater comfort homo consumericus. He sees individuals increasingly isolated in their own worlds of their own entertainment, predicting something like YouTube in the 70s – “we will all be making our own movies in our own bedrooms.” Again Ballard sees this anomie as quite attractive, but it is in its very attraction, the danger of boring contentment, this “suburbanisation of the soul”, that he sees as both alluring and threatening in his later works. “What most of us have to fear for the future is not that something terrible is going to happen, but that nothing is going to happen.” Beginning with Running Wild in 1988 through to his final novel Kingdom Come in 2006, most of his later fiction chronicles characters who choose to escape this nullifying torpor with the most grotesquely balletic violence, or “a paralysing conformity and boredom which can only be relieved by taking your mail order Kalashnikov to the nearest supermarket and letting rip” as he tells Chris Hall.

Ballard’s scope of topics in his conversations is immense. This is probably the first book ever to have the simultaneous subjects “Bosch, Hieronymous”, “Bulger, James”, “Grace Jones and photography”, “Genet, Jean” “Hurley, Elizabeth”, “Oi! music” “Madonna”, “Peckinpah, Sam”, “psychopathology”, and “University of Texas massacre”” in the index. Ballard is very open to all interviewees about exploring his influences, especially the original surrealist artists such as Dali, Ernst, Magritte and Tanguy, their insights “on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics” he claimed to Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2003. The artistic influence is supreme – Ballard’s style is essentially visual. He does not describe the internal lives of his characters, but instead conveys a more profound psychological effect from the events he portrays, a paradoxical inversion in keeping with his expressed view that the internal life and external life have swapped places in the multi-media world of the twentieth century – the advertising swamped external world is now that of fiction, so that an isolated “inner life” can no longer exist. As ever, Ballard does not see this necessarily as a bad thing.

Burroughs is perhaps the writer to which Ballard has been compared most often, and the subject comes up again and again in the interviews. While his admiration for the American is unsurpassed he disavows him as a direct influence – “his narrative structure is without architecture, written straight out of feelings, without planning…..my stories have a very precisely designed structure.” Furthermore,

“my emotions remain uncommitted to whatever my imagination happens to generate. He believes everything he writes. He lives in a paranoid micro-climate of his own….”

Interestingly, he also has Burroughs down as an arch snob-satirist in the mould of Swift, again differentiating himself from the didactic outlook on the world. And amusingly, he confesses that while they were always on friendly terms, Ballard always found a gulf of understanding between the fast-living upper-class American homosexual heroin addict and the fundamentally straight and straight-laced Brit who rarely imbibed anything stronger than whisky.

Ballard talks freely about the traumatic events which have so profoundly yet obliquely influenced his worldview, his childhood in the brutality of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, and the death of his wife Mary at the young age of 33 in 1964. He often states he approaches writing with the detached air of the doctor which he almost became, and that his unflinching, unsentimental dissection of how humanity “works” is a direct result of this. Both detractors and admirers have termed his approach amoral, it is not something he denies. This clinical tone comes over in the interviews too, funny and fascinating as almost always is, there is still a certain opacity of emotion, in his apparent geniality, the same cerebral tone which can lend a certain air of inscrutability even while he is discussing the most intimate details of the death of his wife. We still don’t know what he actually feels. In that ways as in others, the great futurist is in his own strange way old fashioned, the stiff upper lip of the colonial gent. This is after all a man who always said he preferred whiskey to dope, and who never listened to pop music – despite discussing with great length here with Jon Savage the many musicians influenced by his work. The great overseer of the interconnectedness of humanity, who envisaged something very like the internet in a 1971 short story, never quite got round to using it himself.

Jovial English gent he may be, but the interviews here are never less than the fascinating – free play of a truly original mind. In story and interview alike, Ballard seemed unusually attuned to the mutations in the human psyche caused by the era of the car, the computer, globalisation and multimedia . Martin Amis described him as a man who seems to speak to a “different, disused part of the human brain”. Ballard himself said “Science is a new religion waiting to be born. Infinitely more important than literature, which is an old religion – poetry – waiting to die.” Ballard’s writing is where science and literature meet in their purest and most exciting forms.

Any Cop?: To honour a man who made many predictions I will make a modest one of my own. Future generations will see Ballard as one of the defining authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, capturing and defining the psychic shifts of the era. And this book will be an enormously rewarding companion piece to his writing.


[First published on Bookmunch, 2012]