J. G. Ballard’s Brilliant, Not “Good” Writing


The Review’s Review

Shuets Udono, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Putting Ballard on a master’s course list, as I’ve done a couple of times, provokes a reaction that’s both funny and illuminating. Asked to read Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition, the more vociferous students invariably express their revulsion, while the more reflective ones voice their frustration that, although the ideas might be compelling, the prose “isn’t good.” This is especially the case with students who’ve been exposed to creative writing classes: they complain that the books are so full of repetition they become machinic or monotonous; also that they lack solid, integrated characters with whom they can identify, instead endlessly breaking open any given plot or mise-en-scène to other external or even unconnected scenes, contexts, and histories, resulting in a kind of schizoid narrative space that’s full of everyone and no one.

This second group, of course, is absolutely right in its analysis; what’s funny (and, if I can teach them anything, reversible) about their judgment is that it is these very elements (repetition, machinism, schizoid hypermnesia) that make Ballard’s work so brilliant. Not only are his rhythmic cycles, in which phrases and images return in orders and arrangements that mutate and reconfigure themselves as though following some algorithm that remains beyond our grasp, at once incantatory, hallucinatory, and the very model and essence of poetry; but, mirroring the way that information, advertising, propaganda, public (and private) dialogue, and even consciousness itself run in reiterative loops and circuits, constitute a realism far exceeding that of the misnamed literary genre. If his personae are split, multiplied, dispersed, this is because they are true subjects of a networked and fragmented hypermodernity—ones for whom identification, if it is to amount to anything more than a consoling fiction, must come through man’s recognition of himself (as Georges Bataille put it) not in the degrading chains of logic but instead, with rage and ecstatic torment, in the virulence of his own phantasms.

While Ballard’s more outwardly conventional books may give us solider, more stable realities, what these realities often present—in, for example, Empire of the Sun, which is digestible enough for a blockbuster Spielberg adaptation—is a child (or childlike figure) frolicking against a backdrop provided by the destruction of an older order of reality that the world previously took for granted. It’s a cipher for his oeuvre as a whole: endlessly playing among the ruins, reassembling the broken or “found” pieces (styles, genres, codes, histories) with a passion rendered all the more intense and focused by the knowledge that it’s all—culture, the social order, the beliefs that underpin civilization—constructed, and can just as easily be unconstructed, reverse engineered back down to the barbaric shards from which it was cobbled together in the first place. To put it in Dorothean: In every context and at every level, Ballard’s gaze is fixed, fixated, on the man behind the curtain, not the wizard.

Ballard’s novels are radical in the true sense, in that they reach back to and reanimate the novel’s very roots. The presence of Robinson Crusoe in Concrete Island is glaring, as (I’d say) is that in Crash of Tristram Shandy, with its fascination for speeding mechanized land yachts and the springs of broken carriages, for the geometry of ramparts, trenches, culverts, all superimposed on Uncle Toby’s genital mutilation, his obsession with restaging assorted topologies of conflict. Or, for that matter, Don Quixote, with its hero’s obsessive reenactments on the public highways of iconic moments from popular entertainment, the triumphs and tragedies of those late-medieval movie stars, knights-errant. And doesn’t the same propensity for modulating and monotonously lullabying list-making run through Joyce, the Sinbad the Sailors and Tinbad the Tailors and Jinbad the Jailers parading through Bloom’s mind as he drifts into sleep? Doesn’t the same technoapocalyptic imaginary characterize Conrad’s bomb-carrying Professor, whose “thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction”? We could drag the literary cursor forward, through Ingeborg Bachmann, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker—or, indeed, all the way back to Homer and Aeschylus, to wheel-mounted wooden horses, flashing beacons, falling towers.

Ballard’s intelligence (and I use that term in its dual sense of intellectual capacity and source/input feed or “intel”) is expanded, encompassing a field comprising not just literature but also visual art (most notably the work of the Surrealists), cinema, psychoanalysis, sociology, and technological invention. Given his much-repeated claim that facts, real-world events, and ever-more-pervasive media are taking over from fiction, it seems high time that his own copious nonfiction output should be gathered together and laid bare to the same scrutiny—even if he would have rejected the distinction. Here, no less than in the novels, we’re treated, on repeat, to the forging of connections that, utterly counterintuitive though they may be, leap out like lightning flashes in their ineluctable lucidity: from the Wright brothers to the contraceptive pill via “the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat”; or from Hitler to the aforementioned Bloom via their common diet of the half-digested reference library, “vague artistic yearnings and clap-trap picked up from popular magazines.” And here, no less than in the novels, Ballard cements his place as one of English prose’s finest lyricists, conjuring from “the plane of intersection of the body of this woman in my room with the cleavage of Elizabeth Taylor” an image of “the glazed eyes of Chiang Kai Shek, an invasion plan of the offshore islands”; sounding the desolate immensity of Spain’s Río Seco, “the great deck of the drained river running inland, crossed by the white span of a modern motor bridge” beyond which extend “secret basins of cracked mud the size of ballrooms, models of a state of mind, a curvilinear labyrinth” while “juke-boxes play in the bars of Benidorm” and “the molten sea swallows the shadow of the Guardia Civil helicopter”; or (most haunting of all) affirming in a credo that, should I ever become supreme spiritual leader of a postrevolutionary Britain, I will institute as the prime text of national liturgy, replacing the defunct Lord’s Prayer:

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.


Adapted from the foreword to J. G. Ballard’s Selected Nonfiction, 1962–2007, edited by Mark Blacklock, to be published by MIT Press in October.

Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, The Making of Incarnation, was published in 2021.