JG Ballard and the lost English avant garde

Posted by Ken Edwards on Saturday, May 2, 2009 Under: writing
On 19 April we lost a great English visionary. I use the qualifier deliberately: JG Ballard, perplexed ever since his arrival as a youngster from Shanghai by his newly encountered homeland (see his memoir, Miracles of Life), by its absurd fixation on the past, seems ostensibly an alien observer, at odds with the literary and socio-political mainstream of England. And yet I see him as an exemplar of an English dissident tradition; the nearest comparison among writers might be with Blake.

I met Ballard once, about 30 years ago. The adjective I reach for immediately is "jolly". He seemed a good-humoured, witty English gentleman, an ex-RAF officer perhaps, you would think. He was in the RAF, but only for a very brief period. I met him when I was equally briefly playing the part of Promising Young Writer. For some reason, I found myself at one of Emma Tennant's literary parties (I observed Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser, to my great awe, in a far corner of the crowded room). Jim Ballard was very easy to talk with, and I managed to do so at some length, though the only part of the discourse I can now remember is when he glanced at a light-fitting suddenly and remarked, "McLuhan said a light-bulb is pure information." He roared with laughter at this. By then, he was quite merry as well as jolly, and so was I.

That he was a visionary is beyond question. Countless commentators have mentioned his acute insight into the psychopathology of our time and place: the world of mass media, celebrity, instant communications, electronic iconography, narcissism on a spectacular scale; the world of airport lounges, shopping malls and motorways, of pampered Western communities and endless suburbia; and the underlying horror that one day, very soon, this world will be swept away by atavistic forces that lie so close to the surface.

Also visionary in the sense that his literary world is essentially a visual one. The writing conjures up images made of the ruins of concrete, steel and flesh and their representations. On more than one occasion he declared that he wished he had been a painter. The surface of the writing was not of primary interest, neither in his experimental phase nor in his more conventional narratives - Martin Amis says he had "no ear for dialogue" but mentions the "marvellous creaminess of his prose". In fact, the prose is functional, deliberately so, at its most extreme in the terrifyingly objective, forensic narrative of The Atrocity Exhibition. Someone once commented on my use of the passive voice in Nostalgia for Unknown Cities, and I think I must have got it from him.

My first encounter with Ballard's work was in New Worlds in the late 60s. Previously a straight SF magazine, it had mutated under Michael Moorcock's editorship into the nearest thing there has ever been in this country to an avant garde journal of prose writing, under Ballard's tutelary spirit. The tag was "speculative fiction". The content was often deemed shocking at the time, and the distributors John Menzies refused to handle it. It was there that I learned of such writers as Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pyncheon and Harry Mathews, but the magazine's British legacy of pioneering writing, Ballard himself excepted, seems to have faded.

"Speculative fiction" represented a rejection of hard SF's spaceships, alien planets and imaginary beings and proposed instead an engagement with the world as we live it now: indeed, Ballard's "inner space" and "near future". It was a rejection of the tired tropes of English literary fiction, and its obsession with social class; but it was also, implicitly, a rejection of linguistic experimentation. An essay by James Sallis in New Worlds #187 (February 1969), which I've just disinterred, mentions poets such as Olson and Creeley but makes clear a suspicion of "experiment" in writing and "the theoretical, almost antiquarian atttitude". No, New Worlds was not about stretching the boundaries of language - to find that, I had to encounter the British Poetry Revival - rather, stretching the boundaries of subject matter.

The magazine finally collapsed financially around 1970, and despite more than one attempt to emulate it (I remember Paul Brown's short-lived Other Times), there has never been anything quite like it since.

This was the period of Ballard's most far-out books, notably The Atrocity Exhibition, which is the furthest he ever went towards formal experimentation, and Crash; but he shortly returned to more conventionally written and plotted books, including of course the extraordinary Empire of the Sun, in effect a source-book for his signature imagery and sensibility.

Ballard also disliked, or was not interested in, music. For the sound of writing, once again, I felt I had to turn to the poets. But they were not at all interested in prose for the most part.

There is no living prose avant garde in England that I can detect, more's the pity. Some good speculative fiction writers came out of the New Worlds nexus, such as M John Harrison and Christopher Priest. BS Johnson flickered and Alan Burns and Rosalind Belben seem to have been forgotten. Scotland has produced James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. The nearest kindred spirit in England to Ballard is Iain Sinclair, who fills the media's "alternative fiction" slot all on his own these days (there is no room for more here). Will Self, Martin Amis? Hmm.

You'll be missed, Jim. But every time I turn on the TV or drive along the motorway these days I am reminded: the world you imagined is here, for better or worse.

In : writing 

Tags: ballard "speculative fiction" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk