Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The reflected writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies, writers

I find it oddly fitting, on this 12th anniversary of "9/11", to review the memoirs of a British subject who was interned by the Japanese near Shanghai in the 1940s, saw the only city he had known destroyed, and lived the rest of his life in an England where he never quite fit. His productive period began with his years as a widower in his 30s raising three young children.

Many years ago I read a book and a couple of stories by J.G. Ballard and found them beyond my reach, incomprehensible. Now having read Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, and Autobiography, I realize that Ballard's fiction brings us into the ways he coped with the overwhelming losses he had suffered. In one way he is not unique. Many were the expatriate children raised in the Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s, who came to their teen years in time to suffer internment, who were daily familiar with the sight of the dead, who saw, and sometimes experienced, the appalling cruelties of soldiers trained in the centuries-old bushido ethic, for whom their own lives meant nearly nothing, and those of all others, even less. In another way he is unique. He learned to express what these experiences deposited in him.

Ballard's writing sold better in America and Europe than in Britain. The British of the 1950s and even to the 1980s were too stoic to accept writing that laid bare the emotions he was expressing, in his deceptively bland prose. That's what I remember of The Drowned World: imagery that swung from the banal to the horrifying, in writing so matter of fact that scenes I'd ordinary vomit out could slip in almost unaware. To someone whose favorite Science Fiction previously had been the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith and the Robot books of Isaac Asimov, one who subscribed wholeheartedly to Campbell's dictum to "present a tough problem and then solve it", Ballard's surreal emotional landscapes and apparently goal-less plots were beyond comprehension.

Ballard dealt in metaphor, and almost single-handedly wrought a sea change in the S.F. genre through the 1970s and onward. Few have been able to publish works as mysterious as his, but many have drawn from his example more rounded characters, more realistic plots—that is, plots more prone to surprising side channels and seemingly meaningless meanders—and stories that need not be placed in a deep future so the writer can get away with fantasy in the guise of SciFi.

I once childishly said to my mother that it seemed the Star Trek series was about colonialism. She retorted that no, it was about exploration and learning. Over time, I saw she was right. I noticed that the chief characters were well-read and thoughtful, not the mindless heroes of sword-n-sorcery nor the banally evil colonial masters of true colonialism. Ballard's experiences furnished him with material for decades of thoughtful analysis of himself and his fellows, to produce a science fiction that needed just a bit of "suppose this small fact were different, then what?" to bring about a new mental landscape for us to explore with him.

Now that I am a tad more mature, perhaps I can read his fiction and get more out of it. I can't wait to try. (Ballard died in 2009, and this is his last book, started soon after his terminal diagnosis in 2007.)

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