Monday, April 20, 2009

Ballard Gone: World at Half Mast

Yesterday I would have described James Graham Ballard as our greatest living novelist; today, following his death from prostate cancer at the age of 78, I would still categorize him as arguably the most progressive thinker and commentator of our time. He found the beauty in places where beauty did not exist prior to his discovery: in desolation, in anomie, in medical language, in injury, in emotionless sex, in catastrophe, in sterility, in those places where hard corners open into infinite cold, where the imagination turns against itself. In some ways, I feel we continue to live in the 20th century precisely because most of us cannot follow Ballard's writing into the 21st century as it truly is. I consider CRASH the finest piece of writing I've ever read, and it (along with THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION) surely influenced the writing of my own novel THROAT SPROCKETS; CRASH taught me, more than all of Flaubert, more than all of Nabokov, the value of the mot juste, the perfectly crafted sentence and the value of transgression. Ballard himself observed that the book's cult success was not immediate, that it was initially accepted only by "a few psychopaths and amputees."

Somewhere in my archives I have a cassette of an early 1980s interview I conducted with David Cronenberg, during which I asked if he had ever read CRASH, which I expected he would like as it consolidated his obsessions with mutation and cars. He hadn't, but he promised he would. The film he eventually based on Ballard's book had its good points, but is not half so important or daring as the novel; likewise, Steven Spielberg's ambitious but overblown film of EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Jonathan Weiss's film of THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION comes much closer to the mark, making what was oblique and implicit in the original work more explicit while remaining true to its essential spirit and vocabulary.

One of Ballard's typically inspired book titles was A USER'S GUIDE TO THE MILLENNIUM. I feel this title would have been more accurately stamped on the cover of J.G. BALLARD QUOTES, a compendium of quotations from his interviews and fiction assembled by V. Vale and Mike Ryan for ReSearch Publications. I'd call it the perfect bedside book, if it didn't have the most extraordinary capacity to ignite the imagination and keep one up all hours, looking at all and sundry through Ballard's uniquely pitched spectacles. For example, he called Madonna's chromium-plated coffee table book SEX "a Commonplace book for our day, by the Daisy Ashford of the 1990s, as filled with homilies and naive dreams as the diary of any Victorian young lady." He included The Los Angeles Yellow Pages, as well as Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH, on his list of 10 Best Books. Yet he was more than a mere provocateur; these seeming provocations are actually laced with almost perilous insight and keen perspective. He had vision and the courage to use it, the capacity to look at the world around us with the poised disengagement of an art critic. Some called this perspective psychotic; I would call it Godly and the spectacle itself psychotic.

In RUSHING TO PARADISE, Ballard wrote "Contrary to general belief, no one's death diminishes us." Ballard's death enriches us by completing one of the most valuable shelves of literature in English.

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