JG Ballard Obituary
By: Julian on April 22, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
JG Ballard, the author of the cult novels Crash and High Rise, died on Sunday after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 78.

Ballard's influence in contemporary fiction, particularly the science-fiction genre, was a formidable one and he was respected and reviled in equal measure. His incisive brand of dystopian fiction led to an entry in the Collins English Dictionary, "Ballardian", a distinction only the most influential of authors have achieved. However, Ballard was most famous for his semi-autobiographical World War II tome Empire of the Sun, a deeply personal work published in 1984 and filmed by Steven Spielberg three years later.

James Graham Ballard was born on November 15 1930 on the Shanghai International Settlement where his father, a chemist for a textiles firm, was based. When the Japanese occupied the settlement in World War II, the Ballard family – Jim, his parents and his younger sister – were interned to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, where he remained until the conclusion of the war. Ballard was profoundly affected by his traumatic wartime experiences and it directly influenced his science-fiction. In his 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life, his final published work, Ballard wrote ""In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the postwar world."

BallardBallard's first published novel was The Wind from Nowhere, a story about the world being constantly and cripplingly terrorised by hurricane-force winds. Although many critics have called it a Ballardian book and certainly not a bad one, Ballard himself disregards it entirely, oddly asserting his debut came with The Drowned World a year later in 1962. The Drowned World was a scarily perspicacious post-apocalyptic novel about a planet flooded by melted polar ice caps after global warming.

Closing Ballard's sixties canon was one of his most interesting works, the collection of short stories The Atrocity Exhibition. One of the best stories, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" led publishers Doubleday to pulp their first American edition of the book. It wasn't that story's first publication – a year earlier, it appeared in a pamphlet sold in a Brighton bookstore that was later raided for selling offensive material (among the seized works was this one, as well as those of Beat author William S Burroughs and French philosopher Georges Bataille). Ballard was called to give evidence in a court action brought against the owner of the bookstore. In his afterword for The Atrocity Exhibition in the book's 2006 edition, Ballard says, "in preparing me, the defence lawyer asked me why I believed 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan' was not obscene, to which I had to reply that of course it was obscene, and it intended to be so... at last the lawyer said, 'Mr Ballard, you will make a very good witness for the prosecution. We will not be calling you."

In many ways, this summed up Ballard's attitude towards much of his fiction. Ballard knew he was writing edgy, provocative work, and that was part of its entire raison-d'etre. But while it was easy to write-him off as being an exploitative schlock-meister with quote-grabs like "Slow-motion film of Reagan's speeches produced a marked erotic effect in an audience of spastic children", that would be an over-simplification of Ballard's objective. He wanted to subvert, but not at the expense of telling a story that he felt needed to be told.

The anthology publication of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1969 marked the commencement of Ballard's "golden years". His next book was the full-length Crash, expanded from a short story published in The Atrocity Exhibition. Crash tells the story of a man who achieves maximum sexual arousal from being a participant in or observer of real car accidents. It is, obviously, a potently controversial work – so much so that a publisher's reader famously pinned a note to Ballard's manuscript, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!" Part of the novel's controversy extended also from the faux-autobiographical references (the protagonist is named James Ballard), and the super clinical, cold way in which the book was written. Indeed, in interviews, Ballard likened the author's role to one of a medical doctor, "dissecting the cadaver".

Ballard 2Crash is now considered one of the masterpieces of transgressional modern fiction and consolidated Ballard's stance as one of the chief provocateurs in British literature. In 1996, David Cronenberg wrote and directed a film adaptation of Crash, which was as controversial as its source material. Ballard spoke positively of the film, calling it "very cool, almost glassy, rather eloquent [and] mysterious".

In 1975, Ballard wrote what would be his best novel, High Rise. Certainly one of his darkest works, it explores many of his favourite themes, ones that have become quintessentially "Ballardian" - the expansion of technology and inter-class war until the human race imploded. Many of High Rise's core themes, which superficially may be seen as fanciful, were ones he saw ever-present in British society – particularly the excessive consumerism that inspired his work considerably. "[The consumer society] will bring change to England and reveal the strange psychology of these tormented people," Ballard said. "So I began to write science-fiction."

Ballard often played on people's perceptions of him as a genre writer, particularly by science-fiction readers who didn't see him as a science-fiction writer. "[Science-fiction readers] saw me as an interloper," Ballard explained, "a sort of virus that got into the cell of science-fiction, entered its nucleus and destroyed it." Throughout the eighties and nineties, Jim Ballard made two significant genre departures, the first being Empire of the Sun. That book, and its 1991 sequel The Kindness of Women, made Ballard a mainstream literary force, particularly in the United States. Ballard's final novels were more realistic than his previous works, although they had a central focus on the denigration of modern society. The best of these was Super-Cannes (2000), which showcases some of the author's most cutting prose since High Rise.

In a 1995 interview, Ballard said, "I'm certainly not a literary man... I'm interested in science and medicine, the media landscape, and so on. My reflexes are not the reflexes of a literary man. I'm more of a magpie pecking at any bright pieces of foil. I'm interested in the world, not the world of literature." But there can be no doubt that in the world of literature, James Ballard was one of the immortals, a creative talent that, when at the top of his game, could not be beat. He often had shockingly prescient views on existentialism, human fallacy, the advance of technology and politics - "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" predicted the titular object of lust's presidency by over a decade. Jim Ballard, you will be missed.

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