No writer has been as astute an observer of the contemporary condition as JG Ballard. But through the experiences described in this moving memoir, his work also emerges as personal and universally humanby John Gray / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: an Autobiography, by JG Ballard
(4th Estate, £14.99)
Writing of a cycle ride he took with his father in Shanghai in 1941, JG Ballard describes stepping into the grounds of a derelict casino and nightclub called the De Monte: “On the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales. But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appear, it could be swept aside into the past.”
Central to all of Ballard’s writings is the disassembling of the theatre in which our lives are ordinarily enacted—a theatre that includes our habitual selves. When these props are taken away by history, or by some inner imperative of our own, we find ourselves in a world more real than the one constructed by society. With the makeshifts of conventional existence demolished, we face human life on its most basic terms—an extremely sobering, sometimes devastating, experience that can also be oddly liberating.
Ballard has come to be known for his novels of catastrophe and dystopia, critiques of the fragility of modern civilisation and the absurdities of consumer culture. The four he published between 1996 and 2006—Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come—can be read as a running commentary, sardonically detached and often very funny, on the pathologies of the present. No other writer has captured so astutely the ways in which affluent societies maintain their momentum by manufacturing a virtual world whose function is to replace the one we immediately experience. Even William Burroughs—the writer Ballard admires more than any other—cannot rival the unswerving intensity of his eye. Ballard is a supremely undeceived observer of the contemporary condition—but what is often missed is the strain of lyricism that runs through his work. His fiction is an enormous storehouse of images, wondrous tableaux in which ordinary perception has been creatively subverted. The submerged tropical London of his clairvoyant novel of climate change, The Drowned World, the sand-choked Manhattan of Hello America!, the surreally transformed Shepperton of The Unlimited Dream Company—these and many other Ballardian landscapes linger…