Monday, April 27, 2009

Why I Love JG Ballard

Max Ernst, The Whole City, 1935

When I was young Ballard not only showed me consistently perfect writing, but taught me lessons that no one else had and some that no one else ever would, certainly not half so well. Although I never knew him he was a friend, and although we never spoke, he was a mentor. He helped set the bar for what good writing is.

Every writing class addresses the ticking clock, the mainspring of suspense. It is the cataclysm we know will happen in 25 hours unless we can cripple the detonator. The strict regularity of the clock is the inflexible rhythm of all inevitability. Ballard’s clocks are never straightforward. They can tick backwards and turn inward on themselves; his characters are the dials upon which they register.

Ballard showed me that no wall divides dreaming and waking; they mutually interpenetrate. With his calm, avuncular voice he said “Given: your nightmare is reality. Task: Experience your nightmare’s nightmare." He carefully composes symbolic landscapes to reveal what we cannot otherwise see, the mystery behind the veil. Terminal Beach is the landscape of the late twentieth century.

And his meticulously detailed scientific objectivity gives wing to a soaring romanticism. When flowers sing it is with the passionate intensity of Maria Callas. A slowly drowning world, where giant lizards stare menacingly from the terraces of submerged skyscrapers, is a lurid surrealist jungle. The Wind From Nowhere comes from nowhere. The Concrete Island, in the center of London, is worse than Robinson Cruesoe’s because it is encircled not by a blank and endless sea, but by the blind quotidian world. The limits of rationality can be reached and passed, and then the most accurate description of reality reads like a nightmare or an ecstatic vision. That was where Ballard lived.

He was the scientist poet of ultimate reality.

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