Ballard J.G.

J.G. Ballard: Miracles of Life

I may have been a bit disappointed by High-Rise, but that didn’t put me off wanting to read J.G. Ballard’s autobiography, which has been pretty widely acclaimed since its publication last month. I also wasn’t put off – not precisely – when a trusted source read it and pronounced it disappointing; in fact, this may have been crucial in my experience of it, for as a result I approached Miracles of Life with a mixture of trepidation and obligation. Would it have seemed quite so wonderful if I had higher expectations? Who knows? (Who cares?)

J.G. Ballard: Miracles of Life

The subtitle of Miracles of Life is Shanghai to Shepperton, and those who have both read Ballard and read around him will know the central role these two places have played in his writing. Ballard, born in 1930, grew up the son of an English businessman in Shanghai, and after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, life changed. Gone was Shanghai as “the media city before its time, celebrated as the Paris of the Orient and the ‘wickedest city in the world'”, and in 1943 the Ballard family were moved along with other westerners into the Lunghua Camp holding centre, where Ballard witnessed Japanese brutality against the Chinese, but managed to tackle even the more grotesque elements of life in wartime with a child’s insouciance:

In the last eighteen months of the war our rations fell steeply. As we sat at the card table in our room one day, pushing what my mother called ‘the weevils’ to the rims of our plates of congee, my father decided that from then on we should eat the weevils – we needed the protein. They were small white slugs, and perhaps were maggots, a word my mother preferred to avoid. It must have irritated my mother when I regularly counted them before tucking in lustily – a hundred or so was my usual score, forming a double perimeter around my plate and visibly reducing my portion of boiled rice.

Life in the camp also taught Ballard an intimacy with others he had never known before – his parents were of a generation and a class that lived almost separate lives from their children, even when they were all crammed together in a room for two and a half years (“I remember my own parents in the camp, unable to warn, chide, praise or promise … I regret the estrangement, and realise how much I have missed”). This also contributed to what Ballard expresses most enthusiasm for in the book: not his work, but his children, who he raised as a single father from the age of 33 after his wife’s sudden death.  The emotional coldness of Ballard’s parents – representatives of a whole stratum of the English middle class – extended to his later professional life:

I went on my own way, ignoring [my father] when he strongly urged me against becoming a writer.  I had spent five years learning to decode the strange, introverted world of English life, while he was happiest dealing with professional colleagues in Switzerland and America.  He telephoned me to congratulate me on my first novel, The Drowned World, pointing out one or two minor errors that I was careful not to correct.  My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.

The “strange, introverted world of English life” came as a culture shock to Ballard when he came to England after the war at the age of 16.   “The whole nation seemed to me deeply depressed … It is hard to imagine how conditions could have been worse if we had lost the war.”  It is here that he realises that his upbringing in Shanghai was closeted and cocooned, and suddenly “it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of social control, not a picturesque social relic.”

Here then is the genesis of Ballard’s fiction, and the reader comes to realise that even when he spends 100 pages recounting life in wartime Shanghai, almost everything on these pages goes in some way to explaining his often bizarre fiction.  It comes from his experience of the swift breakdown of normal social codes during wartime – as paralleled in many of his novels where self-contained settlements become savage – and his feeling in England of being a “lifelong outside and maverick.  It probably steered me towards becoming a writer devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change.”  The direction he needed (“most English novelists were far too ‘English’) was provided by “Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.”

There is no denying that Ballard knows what he likes, and it is on the subject of literature that the tone goes occasionally from avuncular to curmudgeonly.  He – historically at least – dismissed much modernism and formalist experiment as easily as he did poetry (“a sad little cult”), literary fiction (“too earnest”), popular fiction (“too popular”) and his contemporaries in the 1960s (“most of them were still locked into a literary sensibility that would have been out of date in the 1920s”).  In the end he settled for his style on science fiction – “the true literature of the 20th century” – with a particular emphasis on “inner-space, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes.”

The book ends on a somber and generous note – explaining why the press release announced it as Ballard’s “last book” – and the whole, for me, succeeds in making me want to scuttle off and reconsider even those novels of Ballard’s that I have recently half-dismissed, better than any review could.  But first: Empire of the Sun.

J.G. Ballard: High-Rise

I was horrified to read in a press release for J.G. Ballard’s recently published memoir Miracles of Life that “this book will be his final work.” A stark announcement, directed by Ballard’s diagnosis in 2006 of advanced prostate cancer which had spread out through his body. It made me consider how simultaneously renowned yet overlooked he is, as much a household name as uncommercial novelists get to be, yet never troubling the prize lists or news pages. I also knew that his most famous book, Empire of the Sun, was his least representative. Time for a long overdue revisit then.


I’ve read a few of his novels before. The best of these was The Unlimited Dream Company, a barking mad but enormously impressive fantasy of a man who becomes a pagan god and flies through Shepperton, enfolding the populace into his body and causing vines to burst through the pavements everywhere he spills his seed. But received wisdom has it that Ballard has hit an off-patch of late, with his last four books – Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come – telling the same story over and over: of the violence, sex and depravity which underpins human psychology in the most ‘civilised’ places, and breaks through the surface at the least opportunity.

So I went instead for High-Rise (1975), one of his most acclaimed works, and which turns out to be … about the violence, sex and depravity which underpins etc. etc. Of course many authors write about the same things through their career – Martin Amis said of Graham Greene: “the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn” – but rarely so interchangeably. On investigating more of Ballard’s later books, I found that Running Wild and Rushing to Paradise also have a similar theme, though not quite so identically executed. The website Contemporary Writers calls him “one of Britain’s most original writers.” Well yes: … and yet.

But let’s try to judge High-Rise as the feat of true originality it was at the time, rather than as the model for six of his next eleven novels. The setting is a tower block of the type which had become fashionable in Britain in the preceding decade: “streets in the sky.” While in reality many of these were so cheaply built as to be hazardous to the health of the council tenants who were trapped in them (see Our Friends in the North for a superb dramatisation of this), in Ballard’s world the high-rise is efficient, elegant and crammed with wealthy professionals: it “challenges the sun itself” and “plunges the streets behind into darkness.” This affluent paradise, however, is no more healthy than the council slum flats of the 1960s:

By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.

Now Ballard clearly wants us to believe the second sentence follows from the first, but I don’t buy it at all. We know his experiences as a child in an internment camp in wartime Shanghai left him acutely aware of how easily the veneer of civilization can slip away, but where’s the evidence that this can – not just equally but more deeply, as he seems to suggest in so many of his novels – apply to particularly comfortable peacetime societies? The residents of the high-rise divide into factions, the upper, middle and lower levels of the building representing the class divisions in British society. There is violence, with animals killed, vehicles vandalized and intimidation and assault in every stairwell (the lifts having become practically unusable). Is it because “this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence”? Is Ballard deliberately reversing what we really know to be true, as when one character observes that “a low crime rate is a sure sign of social deprivation”? Is he digging the reader in the ribs by giving the three main characters transparent names like Royal and Wilder?

It is often beautifully written, and there is a peculiar poetry in Ballard’s dedication to detailed descriptions of “the massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture” and of the destruction and psychosis which follows. Nonetheless there is no getting away from the fact that for the bulk of the book, it is very boring to read, which you might think quite a feat when such outlandish activities are being portrayed. Part of the problem is that once the central idea is established (the extract above, which distills it, comes from page 36) then most of the scenes that follow could be read in any order – or not at all – with no loss of effect, before we come to the closing chapters, where things do pick up again quite impressively.

All of this doesn’t make High-Rise a complete failure, because it’s necessarily interesting to see where the idea first came from which would so obsess this fascinating writer for much of the rest of his career. Its attention-seeking opening line (“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”) is justly famous. And the story is open to multiple interpretations of the analogies it supports, and it makes for pleasant mental exercise simply to establish the links of causation which Ballard omits (because the ones he provides sure don’t stand up to examination). One review of High-Rise quoted on the cover says, “Everything seems to demand attention and analysis,” and this is true – and it’s perhaps the book’s greatest achievement, when reading it for the story (which we know the outcome of at the start) doesn’t do much to drive the reader on. Another review calls it “an eerie glimpse into the future.” This is true also: one day all Ballard novels would be like this.