Death of a Dystopian: The life and legacy of J.G. Ballard

Joanne McNeil – Reasononline

Copyright Reason
On the third week of April in 2009, the news included stories about celebrity obsession, empty foreclosed properties, a young medical student who murdered prostitutes, and the death of the man who forecast this media landscape years ago. James Graham Ballard died of advanced prostate cancer on April 19 at the age of 78.
Apart from maybe Samuel Beckett, no other modern writer saw his ideas proliferate across so many platforms. Ballard influenced filmmakers from David Cronenberg to Mary Harron. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the American critic Susan Sontag were fans. Ed Ruscha quotes Ballard in one of his paintings. Joy Division, Hawkwind, and even Madonna have alluded to his work in their lyrics. There was an art show in Barcelona last year entirely devoted to his life and ideas.
J.G. Ballard is best known for Empire of the Sun (1984), a largely autobiographical coming-of-age novel based on his upbringing in Shanghai, where his father was a businessman, and his internment in a World War II prison camp during the Japanese invasion. For those with darker tastes, there is the cult classic Crash, a wild, transgressive 1973 novel about a community of car-crash fetishists that was eventually made into a Cronenberg film. His writing is obsessed with the territories where the organic meets the inorganic; it is absurdist, bleak, vivid, and awake to the psychological effects of media and manmade landscapes. In the words of the novelist Martin Amis, “Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different—a disused—part of the reader’s brain.”
Ballard presents particularly gruesome details of his early years in Miracles of Life, a 2008 autobiography, without any sentimental navel gazing or bitterness. While interned, with his father’s encouragement, the boy ate weevils around his plate of mushy rice “for protein.” Ballard accepted the situation as it was and even looked back at the experience with some fondness. “The most important consequence of internment was that for the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents,” he writes. “I slept, ate, read, dressed, and undressed within a few feet of them in the same small room, in many ways like the poorer Chinese families for whom I had felt so sorry in Shanghai.”
Ballard considered this childhood ordinary. “People who read Empire of the Sun have often said to me, ‘What a strange life, how unusual,’” he told the BBC World Service in 2002. “And I say to them, actually, the life I led in Shanghai before and during the Second World War was not strange; it wasn’t unusual. The majority of the people on this planet today and for most of this century and previous centuries have always lived lives much closer to the way I lived than to, say, the comfortable suburbs of Western Europe and North America. It is here where I live today that is very strange by the world’s standards. Civil war, famine, flood, drought, poverty, disease are the norms of human experience.”
Shanghai is an enormous city, but Ballard was isolated there. At the time it had only a small community of Westerners. He never learned a word of Chinese, and he had his first Chinese meal in Britain, long after he left Asia. But it was England, his home for the rest of his life, that bewildered him. In Shanghai fear and hunger and violence were right in front of him; there were dead bodies lying in the streets where he bicycled. As an adult in the comfortable London suburb of Shepperton, by contrast, Ballard had to look under the surface to find the darkest parts of the human psyche.
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