DEFUSING THE THREAT: AMIS AND BALLARD, AESTHETICS AND BIOGRAPHYby Brendan Byrne
Six days after the death of J.G. Ballard, The Guardian published an obituary authored by Martin Amis which, partially reworked, appeared five months later as the introduction to the hardback American edition of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. It is entirely possible that this collection, upon its release in paperback, will serve as a gateway for Americans otherwise unfamiliar with Ballard’s work; short stories require a good deal less commitment than novels and are often used to judge whether or not a reader will ‘like’ said author’s longer, more demanding (at least in time) works. Amis’s introduction, which draws upon almost four decades of Amis’s personal and professional acquaintance with Ballard, will thus partially shape how Ballard is viewed in America, at least among those who bother with things like introductions.
Almost immediately (first sentence, second paragraph), Amis writes that Ballard’s “imagination was formed by his wartime experiences in Shanghai,” and goes on to quote Ballard in conversation, “people in the social democracies have no idea of the daily brutality of parts of the East.” In doing so, Amis follows a thread, begun following the publication of Empire of the Sun, but recently exploding in a series of obituaries and retropsectives, of stressing the importance of Ballard’s extremely unorthodox (at least for a white British native) childhood.
Amis is an avid admirer of Ballard’s work, and a famous, and extremely vocal, one at that; moreover, he knew and loved the man. However, the stress he lays on Ballard’s youth in Shanghai and the Lunghua camp implicitly presents us with an alternate vision of Jim, blessed with a nice, quiet childhood in Britain, growing up to write metanovels about adultery, or perhaps more damning, nothing at all. This, of course, might very well be true, and Ballard might not have been unsympathetic to a biographical reading of his work, considering his well-documented obsession with psychoanalysis. Moreover, in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Ballard states that his experiences in Shanghai and Lunghua, “mapped out a blueprint for most of [his] fiction.”
However, in the same interview with The Guardian, Ballard states that referring to his fiction as SF is a way of “defusing the threat,” by marginalizing and categorizing it. There can be no doubt that Ballard’s work is threatening. There is no author, save perhaps Burroughs, as committed to violating and critiquing 20th century western society and culture. From his early novels of catastrophe to what Mr. Amis calls his “brutalist” phase to his late period work exploring the “latent psychopathy” of the human race, Ballard’s work is an ice-pick to the eye of any kind of balanced, liberal, humanist self-satisfied world-view. When confronted with Ballard’s work, one must, to remain in good faith, struggle with it, even if only to ultimately reject it. Unless, of course, the Ballardian vision can be explained away. Which is exactly what front-loading, and unduly emphasizing, Ballard’s traumatizing biography does.
In his criticism, Amis constantly seeks balance; his obsession with Nabokov leads him towards rejecting any kind of psychoanalysis of an author’s biography, but, at the same time, a close reading of his critical work shows a man deeply invested in placing work in context. In his 1995 review of Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest, Amis traces Vidal’s views on love and survival directly to two childhood memories and thusly explains Vidal’s life and work. Amis doesn’t go quite so far with his heroes Updike and Nabokov, but he does examine and parse their biographies; he is no New Critic. So, at least, there is some precedence for the attention he pays Ballard’s childhood.
However, there is another threat here, subtler yet greater, and it threads its way through all the years Amis has been writing on Ballard. Skipping his early, strangled review of Crash (which he later near-rescinded due to “sarcasm”), we move directly to a 1974 review of Concrete Island, where he claims “Ballard has nothing coherent to ‘say,’” and that, “His raison, after all, is his awesome visual imagination.” One year later, Amis writes, “I hope no one wastes their time worrying whether High Rise is prescient, admonitory, or sobering...The point of [Ballard’s] visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well, and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction.” In later reviews of Hello America and The Day of Creation, Amis reinforces his view of Ballard as a stylist driven by his imagination to create scenarios not even remotely connected to our reality.
All of which proves that Amis has a long history of missing the point. The language, as well as the imagination that drives it, is important, but it feeds into, is integral to, what Ballard was truly preoccupied with: showing us the “brutality” of our true natures.
Time has dulled Amis’s emphasis, however, and in the 2009 introduction he briefly addresses Ballard’s primarily concern: “what effect does the modern setting have on our psyches...” and then goes on to supply the answer, “‘perversity’... pathologically extreme.” This is a surface reading of what Ballard was getting at and, to some degree, could be said of Amis’s own work, especially Time’s Arrow. Ballard wasn’t saying we are being made perverse by technology; he was saying we are perverse and that technology is enabling us to realize our deepest, most hidden selves. Ballard wasn’t interested in showing us obsession and insanity as isolated cases; he was interested in his characters as stand-ins for society in total. Thus the lack of the individuality Amis recognizes in Ballard’s work and which, in his own fiction, he holds above all else (save, perhaps, his own style.) But even after such a cursory exploration into Ballardian thought, Amis returns us immediately to Ballard’s biography, “And his mind? It continually circles back to the experiences recounted in Empire,” and then returns us to lingering over Ballard’s “ecstatic, melodious and creamily precise,” prose.
Amis has always had a strange, contradictory engagement with the political, perhaps best summed up in an article in The Guardian, written in June 2002, in the wake of the previous September, where he stated, “novelists don’t normally write about what’s going on; they write about what’s not going on. Yet the worlds so created aspire to pattern and shape and moral point. A novel is a rational undertaking; it is reason at play, perhaps, but it is still reason.” And this seems to fit his obsessions: American excess, Nazi death camps, the war of annihilation on WWII’s Eastern Front, the decline of Britain, Islamic Terrorism, all of which he comes at from a more or less non-ideological, rational, humanist viewpoint. Amis supports, and is highly invested in, the very veneer Ballard wishes to crack. Amis once compared Ballard to a “Marxist” and himself to a “social democrat.” The analogy holds. Ballard was obsessed with obsession; Amis at all times seeks distance. Perhaps this has led to Amis’ misreading. Or perhaps it is just that Amis is utterly terrified by what Ballard has to say.