Conversations on a Concrete Island
Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard, 1967-2008
Edited by Simon Sellars & Dan O'Hara (Fourth Estate 503pp £25)
Iain Sinclair has long been one of the most loyal advocates of J G Ballard's writings - but not without a dash of piquant scepticism. In Sinclair's last book, Ghost Milk, the Dean of Psychogeography often turns away from his main topic (a blaring raspberry to the 2012 Olympics) to muse on the Sage of Shepperton, who died in the course of its composition. Sinclair makes several shrewd hits, two of them about that under-appreciated literary form of the last four decades, the Ballard interview: 'Ballard,' he notes, 'may be the first serious novelist whose oeuvre is most widely represented in books of interviews.' And: 'The Ballard interviews, so courteously delivered, on the phone, and in person, were fictions crafted like the rest of his work. He told us what he wanted to tell us. Not a syllable more.'
This is spot-on, and helps explain why, for anyone who cares much for Ballard's work, Extreme Metaphors is such an absorbing read. Just as the letters of certain writers - Keats, Wilde, Flaubert - have come to seem invaluable, unmissable parts of their oeuvres, so this collection of forty-odd bits of journalism can be enjoyed as a kind of protracted non-fiction novel, conducted with the help of a squadron of other writers, whose attitudes span the range from reverent and gormless to canny and challenging (Will Self's is the best of the bunch - it takes a writer properly to draw out a writer).
That's not to say that Ballard was an unreliable fabulist or teller of whoppers. There is little doubt that the formative experiences of his life are related here with witness-box fidelity: the pampered colonial childhood in Shanghai, the privations and thrills of life in a Japanese internment camp, the abortive medical studies, the sudden and devastating death of his young wife. All these were freely offered up to the microphones and notepads of anyone willing to call him or make the twenty-mile trek from central London to Ballard's almost eerily modest suburban house. Ballard's regular tactic as interviewee was, as Sinclair hints, akin to that of the photographer, who crops, burns and dodges images of reality - the truth, yes, but not the whole truth. The 'Ballard' of Extreme Metaphors, like the 'Ballard' of Crash or the 'Jim' of Empire of the Sun, is a well-wrought character.
And a fascinating character at that. An obscure science-fiction author mutating into a critic's darling and international bestseller; a doting single parent; a whisky-and-soda man with a smart blazer and a patrician accent, who twits his trendy-liberal interlocutors by seeing the pretty side of industrial pollution ('I feel there's a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on top of it'), volubly scorning the CND, praising Brian Sewell and admiring Margaret Thatcher for both her 'Americanising' social policies and her sexual attractiveness (though he does call her a 'public-spirited psychopath' at one point); a self-avowed painter manqué whose fictions owe vastly more to the early Surrealists than to any obvious literary forebear, even Conrad; a close reader of medical textbooks about severe injuries and a connoisseur of the neurosciences long before they became modish; the author of The Atrocity Exhibition, a book so offensive to taste and sanity that the US publisher had copies pulped before they could damage the world; and a cult hero for the young.
This Ballard character also has an enviable gift for aphorisms, which may have been pre-crafted but usually read like happy phrases coined in the free swim of talk: 'The male sex is a dust bowl'; 'The surrealists guide us towards a discovery of the secret formulas of reality'; 'Crash is ... a psychopathic hymn'; 'Sex times technology equals the future'; 'The chief role of the universities is to prolong adolescence into middle age'. He describes the comfortable numbness of Switzerland and Germany as 'Kafka with unlimited Chicken Kiev'. He remembers his first encounter with the paintings of Francis Bacon: 'There was a reek of semen that quickened the blood.' He ponders his inner life in a pregnant phrase that gives this collection its title: 'Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born.'
The very nature of a longish book such as this is that it contains a fair amount of repetition, and readers who aren't already fans of Ballard may soon find it wearisome. But the length of the book also allows more engaged readers to enjoy the spectacle of Ballard putting on his show, contradictions and all. It's amusing and thought-provoking to see how Ballard is both tickled and embarrassed by the way eager visitors want to treat him as a guru rather than an imaginative writer. He did in fact have every right to be proud of his feats as a futurologist. At a time when most science-fiction writers were looking to a future of nuclear disaster, Ballard foresaw the world we actually live in - high-tech gadgets in modest homes, narcissistic social media, reality television. And he guessed that Ronald Reagan would become president.
But Ballard was often uncomfortable with the role of prophet, and he patiently laboured the point that his business was that of the artist, not the sociologist. When the future he limned becomes history, his prose landscapes, his metaphors (extreme and otherwise), his biting cadences and his bleak personal legends will still be as fresh as ever. Let the Sage have the last word:
That's what my fiction is all about: people following their obsessions and their private mythologies to the end, whatever the cost. That way they find fulfilment. I've a hunch that's how the mind works. It's as close as people can come to happiness. Try it.
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Kevin Jackson's most recent book is Constellation of Genius - 1922: Modernism Year One (Hutchinson).