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.

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