Feb/Mar 2013

Disaster Relief

J. G. Ballard's memoir ponders the connection between his childhood internment and his sci-fi obsessions

Dennis Lim


Practically the opposite of a tell-all, J. G. Ballard’s memoir, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, suggests that this is an author who said all he wanted to say in his fiction. First published in the UK in 2008, a year before his death from cancer at the age of seventy-eight, the genial and reflective Miracles of Life adds little to what faithful readers will have already gleaned about the workings of his mind and the contours of his life from various interviews, his provocative science fiction, and most of all from his two autobiographical novels, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991).

Drawn from his experiences in Shanghai before and after the outbreak of World War II, including the two years he spent as an adolescent at an internment camp, Empire, Ballard’s best-known (and most conventional) novel, is widely seen as the Rosetta stone of an author so singular his name has long doubled as an adjective. His tumultuous boyhood, many have noted, is the wellspring of what “Ballardian” has come to mean, the source, in his uncanny science-fiction novels, of his signature imagery (drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels, empty airfields) and recurring themes (the irrationality of humans, the adaptability of the imagination). In Miracles of Life Ballard makes peace with this psychoanalytic reading: “For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true.”

An avowed Freudian, Ballard the memoirist readily submits himself to psychobiographical criticism. With the same restraint and lucidity that defined so much of his fiction, Miracles of Life makes the case for viewing the work through the prism of the life, and indeed for deciphering the writings as a kind of post-traumatic eternal return. If this seems a bit simplistic—a demystifying skeleton key to a body of work that otherwise revels in the ineffable and the uncanny—there is also a subtler explanation to be found between the lines of this memoir, a sense of the Ballardian as, above all, a way of seeing the world, and one that is inextricably tied to the perspective of a permanent outsider.

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J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, first edition, 1984.

At every turn in Miracles of Life Ballard emphasizes his stranger-in-a-strange-land credentials. The son of an English textile-firm executive, James Graham Ballard was born in 1930 in cosmopolitan Shanghai and raised in cloistered expatriate comfort, at least until war intruded. He returned as a teenager to a homeland he never knew and found both alienating and depressing. He discovered his true calling in science fiction, which in his quiet way he sought to revolutionize, leaving him at odds with both the literary establishment and genre gatekeepers.

The biggest cliché about Ballard concerns his supposed prescience. It is said that he foretold global warming (in such early novels as The Drought and The Drowned World), the convergence of politics and entertainment (in his 1968 short story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and so on. But science fiction, as practiced by writers like Ballard, is less a matter of clairvoyance and fantasy than of cultural criticism and media theory. His near-future scenarios were not just rooted in his own past but also premised on a clear-eyed diagnosis of the here and now, and as he tells it in Miracles of Life, estrangement only sharpened his vision.

In the book’s most vivid passages, 1930s Shanghai comes to life as a playground for the budding surrealist: “a media city before its time,” “a self-generating fantasy.” Chauffeured through streets that he would soon spend untold hours exploring on his bicycle, young James absorbs Shanghai’s “bright but bloody kaleidoscope” of suited gangsters, fur-coated prostitutes, and starving beggars; even before the war, death was ever present, with the corpses of destitute peasants left in roadside coffins or launched into the Huangpu River. As so many of his protagonists would go on to do, he adapted his psychology to fit the landscape. “I would see something strange and mysterious, but treat it as normal,” he writes, articulating what would become a principal method of his fiction.

Ballard’s taste for adventure—and solitude—only grew when the Japanese invasion of 1937 turned Shanghai into a partly derelict city. He lingers, a touch solemnly, on the sights and spaces that would become totemic in his work. The first time he saw a drained swimming pool, “it struck me as strangely significant,” “a mysterious empty presence”; a detour through a ruined casino on his way to school instilled “the sense that reality itself was a stage set.” The war brought up-close brutality—he saw Chinese men beaten and strangled to death by Japanese soldiers—but even when his family was shipped to Lunghua Camp, as we know from Empire of the Sun, Ballard thrived, or at least his imagination did. He calls the detention center “a prison where I found freedom.” The “eventless world” of incarceration that so fazed the adults presented limitless possibility for a curious, intelligent child. He played chess, befriended Japanese guards and American seamen, and collected magazines like Time andPopular Mechanics, which provided “the kind of hard information on which my imagination fed.”

The teenage James returned to “derelict, dark and half-ruined” Britain, with its “small, putty-faced people,” where war rations were still in place. But what truly bothered him was “the far more dangerous rationing of any kind of belief in a better life.” Ballard made his name in the early ’60s with a tetralogy of novels set in the aftermaths of environmental cataclysms. The research scientist of The Drowned World (1962), one of his supreme achievements, is the emblematic Ballard hero, a lone figure in a desolate landscape who finds his personality gradually transformed by his surroundings and by the end becomes “a second Adam.” For Ballard, who detested nostalgia and the dreary conservatism of postwar England, apocalypse is nothing less than the ultimate agent of change.

Much of Miracles of Life amounts to a teleological recounting of Ballard’s influences. Most important was his teenage exposure to Freud and Surrealism, “a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges that I was hesitating to cross.” He considered a career in psychiatry, which led him to study medicine at Cambridge, but he lasted only two years at “an academic theme park where I was a reluctant extra.” Still, the anatomy and pathology lessons left their mark; Ballard the writer would make use of hard science and develop an ear for the deadpan poetry of medical jargon.

The young Ballard was a movie buff who loved film noir, for unfolding in “a psychological space that existed first and foremost in the characters’ minds.” Pop art rocked his world, and he would later stage his own scandalous exhibition of wrecked cars as a dry run forCrash (1973), about a group of auto-accident fetishists, his most notorious novel and most radical liebestod. But while the other arts fed his fiction (and vice versa, to judge by his influence on music and film, from Joy Division, fellow connoisseurs of urban blight who named a song after his experimental opus The Atrocity Exhibition, to David Cronenberg, who adapted Crash and counts as a true kindred spirit), Ballard’s relationship with literature has always been complicated. He “read far too much, far too early,” and soon realized that his early literary heroes—Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway—were not to be aped. The dominant midcentury view of the English novel as “a moral criticism of life,” per F. R. Leavis, was to him hopelessly insular, and his lifelong separation from the London literati—aside from the mention of a passing friendship with Kingsley Amis—is a point of pride (he says the last book party he attended was in the 1970s).

His belated discovery of science fiction came in 1954 while stationed with the Royal Air Force in Saskatchewan, Canada, where he found in the better s-f publications on the magazine racks a form of fiction “actually about the present day,” attuned to the psychic currents of “a consumer society that might decide to go on a day trip to another Auschwitz and another Hiroshima.” Ballard’s highbrow fans often claim defensively that he is “more than” a science-fiction writer, but in his memoir he happily stakes his claim to the genre he describes, in somewhat grandiose terms, as a laboratory of ideas, “a visionary engine.”

The famously cool detachment of Ballard’s prose has thawed in Miracles of Life, which strikes a gentle, even companionable tone, but there remains a kind of British reserve. The pained reticence with which he recounts the early death of his wife, Mary, from pneumonia while on holiday in Spain is moving, but in general the most personal passages entail, perhaps for self-protective reasons, the blandest writing. In plain, often vague prose, he recounts the distance he always felt from his parents, his devotion to his three children (the “miracles” of the title), and his gratitude to his partner of many decades, Claire Walsh.

Many of the events, images, and emotions in Miracles of Life are familiar from Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, sometimes captured in near-identical language. (Both Kindness and the new memoir, in describing his anatomy classes at Cambridge, liken the appearance of a dissected cadaver’s skin and muscle to a deck of cards.) As it turns out, there are some differences between the events in the novels and those in the memoir, telling illustrations of the imaginative possibilities of fiction. The death march that forms the dramatic climax of Empire, we learn in Miracles, never happened, and while the fictionalized Jim sees the glow of the atomic bomb from afar, the real one, cut off from news reports, experienced the end of the war as a “strange interregnum.” The Jim of the novel is a war orphan, separated from his parents, but Ballard shared a room at Lunghua with his family. In Miracles of Life he explains that he removed his parents from the story in the interest of “psychological and emotional truth”—which itself could be an argument for reading the novels instead of the memoir.

With his various alter egos named James—“an attempt to be faithful to my own imagination,” Ballard writes, “accepting all that this entailed”—and all the doctors and scientists who represent paths not taken, Ballard’s entire body of work scans as a parallel autobiography. One of his short stories is even titled “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” In this early stab at self-portraiture—written nearly three decades before his death—J.G.B. wakes in his Shepperton home to find his surroundings (and London, and perhaps the whole world) deserted. The eerie desolation gives way to a perversely thrilling calm. The story concludes: “B was ready to begin his true work.” Here, in barely a thousand words, is the true autobiography of J. G. Ballard, for whom an ending always meant the possibility of a beginning.

Dennis Lim is a writer living in New York.

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