Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Things I Have Learned From J. G. Ballard

I am finally done with The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, and not a moment too soon. Ballard was a good writer, as I had hoped, but 1200 pages of his short stories was just not a good idea to read straight through. They start to blend together after a while.

Nevertheless, I find that I have learned a few things.

1. The space program was probably a mistake.

If there was any one theme that seemed to unite Ballard's short stories, it was that going into space was sure to lead to disaster. Sometimes it was disastrous for those going into space, men and women who often found their decaying corpses rotating around the earth in equally decaying orbits for the edification of those still earthbound. And sometimes it was equally disastrous for those earthbound, who found themselves in a world of hurt simply because someone else went into space. On the whole I find this position curious - a modern version of the Frankenstein "there are some things humans were not meant to know" story that never really explains why jaunting off to the moon is such a bad thing beyond merely asserting that it represents some sort of evolutionary advance beyond our capacity. C'mon, people - Tang!  How can this not have been worthwhile?

2. Time will mess with your head.

Time always messes with your head. I'm not sure how my children got so big, how I got so old, or why nobody remembers Super Chicken except a few aficionados anymore, but what can you do about time, that's what I want to know. Ballard's take on this conundrum is that since we were never meant to go into space, the fact that we did inevitably causes all the time to leak out of the universe and puddle up around our ankles until we are left frozen into a single moment for all eternity. Things slow down, and then stop. So you need to plan, lest you spend your eternal moment sneezing or something equally non-entertaining. Good advice, I say.

3. Florida is doomed.

This is a corollary of the first two lessons. For an Englishman, Ballard was surprisingly obsessed with Cape Canaveral - almost as much as he was with Jodrell Banks, the large array of radio telescopes in Britain - and when all the time finally does leak out of the universe it does so through Florida, presumably with a giant gurgling noise similar to a bathtub. This leaves Florida as an abandoned, sand-strewn wreck, or a jungle, or some other equally distressing state of affairs.  Now, on the one hand, this does not bother me particularly. I would in fact regard it as suitable payback for the state that brought us the butterfly ballot and eight years of the dregs of American politics lording it over the rest of us as if they had a mandate to undo the Constitution and spend the earnings of my grandchildren on their pet projects. On the other hand, well, I'll miss the oranges.

4. So are you.

Ballard's writing is not uplifting. Even the stories theoretically set in the present have strong elements of dystopian science fiction in them, and after a while you just get numb to it all. All right, I got it, I'm doomed. And so is the rest of humanity, so at least I'll be in good company - a lot of these stories are set in depopulated worlds where the few remaining people are just serving out their time playing psychological games with themselves until the end comes and living off the canned goods and liquor they find in abandoned supermarkets and bars. So perhaps I should just enjoy my canned goods and liquor now, while I still have friends to share them with. This is a valuable lesson, really.

5. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice, but apparently sand will do quite nicely as well.

There is a lot of sand in Ballard's future. It blows in, piles up, and generally gets into the underwear of the future, irritating it and making it anxious. Beware of the sand.

6. There will be cocktails during the apocalypse.

Ballard was a man of his times - one of the post-WWII middle class, whose world was bound by highballs, modern art, jazz, Freudian pop psychology and the general notion of "glamour" as defined by early James Bond movies and the Rat Pack. None of these things go away. Therefore cocktails are not just relaxing, they are a requirement for preserving what sanity one retains. Many was the time during this book when I felt that it would have been nice to have one myself. It would have been appropriate.

7. Modern art will remain just as pretentious in the future as it is now.

Sonic statues? Concerts deliberately held beyond the range of human hearing? You know, when I worked in theater we had a phrase for this - "too much concept." It's nice to see that some things remain constant, even in a world gone mad. I had a friend in high school who complained bitterly that all people wanted from art was "recognizability," and I never understood why this was a problem. Of course, I am the one who went through the Smithsonian Museum of Art with my family, and when we got to the room full of Dutch Masters and Tabitha asked me what these paintings were, replied "Men with beards." So perhaps I am not the most qualified person on the planet to make these kinds of judgments, is what I'm saying.

8. When it comes to the human condition, Chekhov was an optimist. So was Murphy.

People are odd things. I firmly believe that 10% of them aren't worth the space they take up, but the other 90% I rather like. So I am not often surprised by either the good that people do or the harm. In Ballard's stories, you learn to expect the worst of people and you are rarely disappointed. It's not that his characters are evil - there is very little actual evil in these stories, when you get right down to it. It's just that they are not really going to make their worlds or yours any better by existing in them.

9. Psychologists don't know any more about your mental state than you do.

This is another running theme. Psychologists are generally there to explain the plot and provide running commentary so that the reader can be either more or less confused, depending on what Ballard wanted to achieve with this particular story. Maybe self-help isn't so bad.

10. It is, in fact, possible to sustain a single mood across 36 years, 98 stories and a ream and a half of double-sided pages.

For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they'll like.

On the whole, I do think the book was worth reading, and it must be said that Ballard is indeed a fine writer. But I think I'll move on to something a little more cheery.

Like Vonnegut.


Katherine McKay said...

I would love to have been your English teacher, grading your book reports. A++ (Plus, you saved me from reading this guy, worth an A all by itself.)

David said...

Oh, he's worth reading. Just not 1200 pages all at once! A couple of stories here and there will do fine.