Friday, 24 April 2009

My Favourite Writer J.G. Ballard Dies.

On Sunday 19th April J.G. Ballard died. I have read Ballard since my teens and he has become my favourite author. I have now completely immersed myself into his imaginative landscape, an imaginative landscape not of the far future or the distant past but the here and now. He has taught me that mystery, strangeness, even beauty and transcendence can be found in the geography of London’s utterly banal and alienated outer suburbs-a world of business parks, shopping centres and motorways. Rather then escaping to elsewhere, to a galaxy far, far away, Ballard brought science fiction down to earth without abandoning its visionary potential.

His style is not bleak realism that rubs your nose in despair, but enhanced hyper-realism closer to lucid dreaming or trance states. His protagonists populating his fictions seek transformation or psychological fulfilment not through extraversion-a sane and gregarious hero figure conquering his enemies and getting the girl-but by going inward, deep into the inner space of their minds, embracing obsession near to the threshold of madness. (and some times stepping over that threshold into genuine insanity.) The imagination is brought into the foreground, the source of personal liberation, highly appealing to my introverted and “stay at home’ personality.

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-story car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels…

But here we come to another important facet of J.G. Ballard; his critique of late-capitalism. Ballard’s fictions are ambivalent: on the one hand he reached out to the deviant and most alienated side of our society, the revitalising effects of violence or extreme sexuality, the leeching away of emotion to allow the imagination full reign-the death of affect. But on the other hand he understood the dangers residing in our modern day dystopias, high rises, gated communities and shopping malls, sapped of all human agency and community. J.G. Ballard was not left wing as such and leaves us with no social solution for our predicament. It’s difficult at times to reconcile my leftist hunger for class struggle and collectivism, albeit of the autonomist persuasion, with what seems on the service a middle-class individualist outlook. But his novels and stories depicted nightmares of capitalism, ruthlessly dissecting the psychopathology of corporatism and consumerism-offering a psychological or artistic solution not a political one. Anyway like all great artists he went beyond mere ideology, a subversive act in itself.

I suppose another factor in my love of J.G. Ballard was he lived very nearby. He was not a distant literary figure living the high life, but was almost a neighbour. It was only a few years ago I found out his address by looking in the local phone book (yes, there it was in the local phone book!) I would never intrude on his privacy but I did take a walk from Walton where I live to Shepperton to view his house. And it’s as ordinary as everyone says it is. It would be really great if a J.G. Ballard fan bought the house and turned it into a sort of Ballard museum by keeping it exactly as it is.

I will miss J.G. Ballard. I never knew him but his writing has lodged itself into my brain like no other writer. He has literally changed my mental map, no cliché. J.G. was never a believer in God or an afterlife but let’s hope like a "second Adam," he has found at last "the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun."

Friday, 10 April 2009

Book Review: Daemonomania by John Crowley

Daemonomania is a novel that needs to be read more then once. Its complexities and mysteries would give a literary critic plenty of scope for a PHD thesis. So to write a short review of the third book in John Crowley's Aegypt Cycle after reading the novel for the first time (and also taking into account that Daemonomania is part of a long interlaced story encompassing three other novels equally as complex) has its difficulties.

Daemonomania I found was slightly more fragmented then the previous novels. (Aegypt or The Solitudes and Love & Sleep) Not unstructured or jumbled just so many strands to take into account. Pierce Moffett's character takes on a darker hue, having the dominant role in a sadomasochistic relationship with girlfriend Rose and descending into depression when she turns to a cultish Christian organisation, The Powerhouse. Rosie (not to be confused with Rose) struggles with her daughter Sam's epilepsy, that's triggered by the scrying globe once belonging to the occultist John Dee, an historical character but also a character in the novels. Adding to her problems Rosie's ex-husband has joined The Powerhouse and demands custody of Sam... There is far more going on of course both at the domestic level and at the metaphysical-the previous age of the world transforming into the new: the overall theme of the Aegypt quartet.

It would be a bit of a stretch calling the books fantasy (certainly not genre fantasy) but Daemonomania does contain much that's fantastic and it's arching schema of Neo-Platonist and Gnostic cosmology firmly places it in the category of fabulation. The fantasy elements are primarily contained in the sequences set in the 16th Century revolving around the lives of John Dee and Giordano Bruno; in Daemonomania these sections have escaped from the pages of dead writer Fellowes Kraft's historical novels-the books within a book of Aegypt and Love & Sleep-and been intergrated into the main narrative. There's plenty of small-scale fantasy subtle interwoven into the lives of the 20th Century characters: Sam, Rosie's four year old daughter, has contact with the 16th Century via Dee's scrying ball, when her own toy ball bounces into John Dee's world, startling the old mage. There's also the strange sub-narrative of a battle running throughout history, between 'werewolves,' (on the side of good) and 'witches' at the gates of the land of the dead. One modern day character, Bobby, the feral mountain girl, (in Daemonomania, she's grown up) taken in by the 11 year old Pierce and his cousins in 'Love & Sleep,' is related to the 'werewolves,' although it seems she has more of the 'witch' inside. It's also interesting that most of the 20th Century protagonists are unaware of anything supernatural or fantastic, except for odd coincidences. (coincidences play a major role throughout the sequence of novels) Pierce never has his magical theories of history confirmed and only half believes them anyway.

By the end of this wonderful novel the world has shifted into a new age with the past age forgotten, remembered only in obscure fragments. The end of the world is not apocalyptic but experienced individually, at the unconscious level, with none of the fireworks of conventional fantasy.

The Aegypt Cycle is a dense, multifaceted and completely immersive read. I found myself almost a part of its construction as if I was a vital character looking down on its entirety from above; all down to John Crowley's skillful use of post-modern self-reference. It's no exaggeration to say Daemonomania, along with the other novels, is a work of literature. But you will not find the book in a British shop and in the US you would have to search through the Sci-Fi and Fantasy shelves before, if your lucky, finding a copy. It's been ignored by the literary establishment (except Harold Bloom), but it towers over most modern mainstream fiction. I look forward to the conclusion of the series in 'Endless Things.'

For a better and more in-depth review of Daemonomania and the Aegypt Cycle read Genre Trouble by James Hynes.