Monday, 31 August 2009

Book Review: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

The first J.G. Ballard book I read as a teenager and the one I would recommend to those curious enough to want to start reading his works. The themes of High-Rise resonate through nearly all of his later novels-the real logic behind the isolated enclaves of late capitalist consumer society (gated communities, luxury holiday resorts, shopping malls) brought to the surface; their brightly lit but soulless affluence reduced to dystopias of violence and perversity. Like his earlier SF disaster novels it's apocalyptic but the societal collapse is contained within the microcosm of a 40 story high-rise of the very near future not on the planetary level; but the novel is still SF, a speculation about the negative possibilities of the future. The book has violence aplenty but lacks the obsessively explicit or deliberately repetitive feel of Crash. Unlike The Atrocity Exhibition it's structured conventionally with a plotted beginning and end and solid characters, although a hallmark of Ballard's style is that idea and image comes before in-depth character study.

The setting is of course a newly developed high-rise complex for the professional middle classes, a 'vertical city' situated in London's Docklands. All amenities are self-contained within the block with a shopping centre, a bank, restaurants and swimming pools-nobody need leave the building except to attend their workplaces. Minor irritations and infractions (noisy parties, the absurd resentments of the tenants, power cuts, etc) escalate gradually into brutal gang warfare between the different floors, remorselessly leading to a complete breakdown of any form of structured society, amongst the graffiti strewn corridors and staircases, broken escalators, piles of garbage and smashed furniture. Three characters dominate the novel: Dr Robert Laing, who works in a nearby medical school, who withdraws into his own private world of survival, like all the inhabitants of the building, quite happy existing as a lone hunter-gatherer: The macho Richard Wilder, ex-rugby player and TV journalist from the lower floors attempting to make a documentary about the high-rise, that ends in a quest to reach the 40th floor, his persona reduced to that of masculine savage, his useless cine-camera clutched like a shamanic totem. Anthony Royal, the architect of the whole complex, living in the top-most penthouse, regarding the high-rise as a social laboratory, but like Dr Frankenstein becoming a victim of his own experiment.

Some more literal minded readers may quibble that the scenario of High-Rise is an impossibility; eventually the outside world would become aware of the breakdown of law and order and the police sent in. (Maybe eventually they do but long after the events accounted in the novel) But this is missing the point as the book should be read as speculative fiction not social realism; an ambiguous warning about the negative possibilities latent in our commodified, technologically dominated society. It's real concern lies with the psychological affect of the building itself.

A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake...people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed...By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure with in the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly 'free' psychopathology.

Published in 1975 the above passage from High-Rise is even more relevant in the early 21st century and highlights his genius. We now truly live in the strange and disturbing world J.G. Ballard began to map out in his fictions of the 1960's and 70's.

Websites for J.G. Ballard Fans:

Friday, 28 August 2009

Book Cover of J.G. Ballard's Crash

Due to technical problems I was unable to upload the book cover of my 1995 edition of J.G. Ballard's Crash into the review. Here it is instead in a separate posting.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Book Review: The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash by J.G. Ballard

Alongside Empire of the Sun, his wartime autobiographical novel, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash are considered the most important and distinctive of J.G. Ballard's fictions. But a word of warning to anyone new to J.G. or those of a sensitive disposition; these are transgressive pieces of literature, very much extreme works of the imagination. When the manuscript for Crash was sent off for publication in 1973, the publisher's reader reported back to her editor, not without a certain amount of justification, that 'this author is beyond psychiatric help-do not publish!'

The Atrocity Exhibition is a collection of linked pieces; each piece or 'condensed novel' originally published separately in the avant-garde journal Ambit and Michael Moorcock's left-field science fiction magazine, New Worlds. They detail the obsessions of an alienated psychiatrist under going some kind of mental breakdown; attempting to make sense of the irrational violence of the 1960's-the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, The H Bomb, car crashes, etc-and his own bodily and conscious identity, in a world dominated by advertising, iconic celebrities, pornography and media saturation. There is no plot and the book can be read out of sequence, but a very loose and fragmented narrative can be mapped out. Here is an example of prose taken from Chapter Five: Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown:

Pentax Zoom. In these equations, the gestures and postures of the young woman, Trabert explored the faulty dimensions of the space capsule, the lost geometry and volumetric time of the dead astronauts.

(1) Lateral section through the left axillary fossa of Karen Novotny, the elbow raised in a gesture of pique: the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader.

(2) A series of paintings of imaginary sexual organs. As he walked around the exhibition, conscious of Karen's hand gripping his wrist, Trabert searched for some valid point of junction. These obscene images, the headless creatures of nightmare, grimaced at him like the exposed corpses in the Apollo capsule, the victims of a thousand auto-crashes.

(3) 'The Stolen Mirror' (Max Ernst). In the eroded causeways and porous rock towers of this spinal landscape Trabert saw the blistered epithelium of the astronauts, the time-invaded skin of Karen Novotny.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a challenge because of its style and disturbing content. But for those with the right temperament it makes for an exhilarating read. Its strength lies in its visual intensity like a video collage or surrealist painting, its mysteriousness and utter originality-there is nothing quite like this in literature. The latest edition contains annotations by the author which are worth reading in themselves for their unsettling but thought provoking uniqueness.

The Weapons Range.

Weapons ranges have a special magic, all that destructive technology concentrated on the production of nothing, the closest we can get to certain obsessional states of mind. Even more strange are the bunkers of the Nazi Atlantic Wall, most of which are still standing, and are far larger than one expects. Space-age cathedrals they threaten the surrounding landscape like lines of Teutonic knights, and are examples of cryptic architecture, where form no longer reveals function. They seem to contain the codes of some mysterious mental process. At Utah Beach, the most deserted stretch of the Normandy coast, they stare out over the washed sand, older than the planet. On visits with my agent and his wife, I used to photograph them compulsively.

'If The Atrocity Exhibition was a firework display in a charnel house, Crash was a thousand-bomber raid on reality...', so said J.G. describing Crash in his autobiography, Miracles of Life. Crash unlike The Atrocity Exhibition has the conventional structure of a novel, a first person narration with plot and characters. But Crash travels even further into the realms of the psychopathic and obsessional. The narrator, disturbingly named 'James Ballard,' accounts his escalating sexual fixation with crushed metal and car crash injuries after his own auto-accident and his homoerotic fascination with Vaughan, 'hoodlum scientist' and 'nightmare angel of the highways.' Vaughan is a type that inhabits many of Ballard's novels; usually a doctor, psychologist or scientist but dangerously unhinged, an expounder of a 'deviant logic' underpinning modern society and crucially holding a strong but unsettling attraction for the main character or narrator. Vaughan celebrates the automobile disaster as a form of religious sacrament, a fusion of flesh and technology, sex and death.

Vaughan unfolded for me all his obsessions with the mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat -belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue. For Vaughan each crashed car set off a tremor of excitement, in the complex geometries of a dented fender, in the unexpected variations of crushed radiator grilles, in the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver's crotch as if in some calibrated act of machine fellatio. The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized for ever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

Crash is repetitive (some would say tedious) and monomaniacal, but this bombardment of perverse but clinical imagery, acts like a mantra and adds to the hallucinatory but nightmarish extremity of the novel. The empty landscape of motorways and flyovers, filling stations and ultra modern hotels and apartment blocks with Heathrow airport at the centre is turned into an alien terrain.

On the first afternoon I had barely recognized the endless landscape of concrete and structural steel that extended from the motorways to the south of the airport, across its vast runways to the new apartment systems along Western Avenue. Our own apartment house at Drayton Park stood a mile to the north of the airport in a pleasant island of modern housing units, landscaped filling stations and supermarkets, shielded from the distant bulk of London by an access spur of the northern circular motorway which flowed past us on its elegant concrete pillars. I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction.

During my weeks in hospital the highway engineers had pushed its huge decks more than half a mile further south. Looking closely at this silent terrain, I realised the entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter.

Crash can be read in three different ways; as a 'kind of psychopathic hymn' or 'the first pornographic novel based on technology;' as a psychological horror story detailing obsessional states of mind or as J.G. puts it in the last line of his 1995 introduction:

Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Book Review: The Drought by J.G. Ballard

In tribute to the great J.G. Ballard who died in April, I'm re-reading four of his novels: The Drought, The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and High Rise.

J.G. Ballard's eco-catastrophe novels from the 1960's are not like your average disaster novel. He's not interested in didactic warnings or setting up an apocalyptic scenario merely as backdrop to the characters lives. These novels are about drastically altered landscapes, surreal vistas, intrinsically connected to the central protagonists' inner or mental space. The Drought is composed of intensely visual, descriptive prose, used as a paintbrush to conjure beautiful but desolate geography in the readers' mind: drained lakes and dry river beds littered with rusting ships and wrecked technology and cities succumbing to encroaching dunes.

At this point the river had been dredged and widened. They passed more launches and river-craft, half-submerged under the sand-hills. Ransom stopped and let the others move on ahead. He looked at the craft beached around him. Shadowless in the vertical sunlight, their rounded forms seemed to have been eroded of all but a faint residue of their original identities, like ghosts in a distant universes where drained images lay in the shallows of some lost time. The unvarying light and absence of all movement made Ransom feel that he was advancing across an inner landscape where the elements of the future stood around him like the objects in a still life, formless and without association.

The book's plot is simple. Dr Charles Ransom remains behind in a lakeside town, Hamilton, in an unspecified country as most people flee to the coast. The town succumbs to ever increasing levels of dust and sand, as the lake and the river dry up when the world-wide drought hits; the town eventually burning as religious factions fight it out. In the second part ten years have gone by and Ransom is now living a precarious life on the endless salt flats of the coast where scattered settlements cling to a barely sustained existence. The third part describes the journey back along the dried up river bed through the dune infested towns and sand inundated wreckage of civilization, in search of a possible oasis. The characters of the novel are vivid insane archetypes seemingly springing from Ransom's unconscious rather then any external reality. A minor character worth mentioning is Jonas, the leader of a strange cult formed by the fishermen of Hamilton, and his obsession with finding a 'new' river in the desolate wilderness of the lake, obviously a seed of a much later novel, The Day of Creation (1988)

The over riding symbol of The Drought is the desert, leeching away time, eroding the past and sense of the future into an endless fossilized present. Ballard draws from the surrealist painting 'Jours de Lenteur' by Yves Tanguy, hanging in Ransom's houseboat, and the painting's name is also the title of the last chapter of the novel, making explicit its connection with surrealism.
As he pondered on the real reasons for their journey, he had begun to sense its true inner compass. At first Ransom had assumed that he himself, like Philip Jordan and Mrs Quilter, was returning to the past, to pick up the frayed ends of his previous life, but he now felt that the white deck of the river was carrying them all in the opposite direction, forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded, muffled by the detritus of time, like images in a clouded mirror. Perhaps these residues were the sole elements contained in the future, and would have the bizarre and fragmented quality of the debris through which he was now walking. None the less they would all be merged and resolved in the soft dust of the drained bed.

Postscript: Without any knowledge of J.G. Ballard or my interest in him, relatives of mine from Australia sent my brother these pictures of Lake Ballard in Western Australia and Antony Gormley's sculptures situated on this waterless salt lake. These artworks are not inspired by The Drought or Ballard and any connection is purely coincidental but I believe the unconscious resonances with the novel are uncanny.