After paying some bills last night, I clicked “headlines” on my browser bar and saw that J. G. Ballard had died. There’s no shortage of news about this now, but as many of the obits seem to focus on his role as an influencer (see “Author J. G. Ballard dies after lengthy illness,” by Ben Hoyle, Times), I’ll add a few words about Ballard’s influence on me.
In high school and for a time thereafter, I devoured “subversive” literature. (Now it seems as though the act of devouring any kind of literature is itself subversive.) My father taught 1984 and Brave New World in high school English (go Knights!), and those books, along with Lord of the Flies, formed an indelible impression on me at a time when my brain was considerably less calcified than it is now.
Just as many kids reenact their parents’ rebellions, helped along by the rediscovery of their parents’ Hendrix and Doors records, I began reading the Beats, enthralled by the sheer footloose outsiderness of it all. My friend Matt Crowley helped me along the way by recommending the proto-Beat, William S. Burroughs, and encouraging me to read even pop-cultural fare like No One Here Gets Out Alive through a different lens. (Maybe the juxtaposition had something to do with the fact that Burroughs once reviewed a Led Zeppelin concert for Crawdaddy.)
I believe it was Matt who recommended Ballard, too. I read Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise in rapid succession. While the messages of 1984 and Brave New World certainly spoke to me, Ballard’s vision hit me harder. For starters, his fictional worlds looked more like the one I lived in (or, at least, read about). Perhaps even more heady was the seeming casualness with which the ideas–the fetishization of deadly technology, the ease with which the veneer of civilization can be stripped away–were presented. His worlds are presented coolly: where Orwell sticks Winston’s head in a rat cage, Ballard takes us to a party where people discuss crashing cars for sexual kicks. Even when the dwellers of a high-rise reveal their innate savagery, it’s presented with chilling matter-of-factness.
Such comparisons oversimplify matters, of course. But, reading Ballard, I felt a chemical change in my brain–at times tantalizing, at times worrying–that I’ve rarely felt since. In reading the obitutaries, I’ve discovered that he influenced more artists than I’d imagined. (Few, after all, were as straightforward as Joy Division, who titled a song “The Atrocity Exhibition” after Ballard’s book of the same name.) But Ballard certainly influenced my thinking, and my writing, as I know he has influenced almost everyone who’s read his work. Once you’ve read him, you’re not the same, whether you name-check him or not.
I haven’t kept up with his career, for some reason, despite frequent thoughts of reading Cocaine Nights or Super-Cannes. Maybe I was chasing that elusive, brain-tingling sensation with other authors. But as I read and review books for Booklist, I keep finding other authors who have the same high regard for Ballard that I do. See Noir, by Olivier Pauvert, for instance, and Isle of Dogs by Daniel Davies.
Ballard may not be a household name, but given his enormous influence with other writers, his influence has been magnified a hundredfold. Truly a giant of our time.
The Enlightenment view of mankind is a complete myth. It leads us into thinking we’re sane and rational creatures most of the time, and we’re not. –J. G. Ballard
A good summing-up by David Ulin on Jacket Copy:
It’s easy, from the perspective of the present, to minimize just how revolutionary all this was — we now live, after all, in Ballard’s world.
And Norton will publish The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard in September (“Norton to Publish Posthumous Volume of Ballard Short Fiction,” Publishers Weekly).
And on NPR (“‘Empire of the Sun’ Novelist Ballard Dies“), the writer’s last name is pronounced “buh-LARD,” as though he were French. I had always thought it was “BAL-ard,” but what do I know? I’m no NPR newscaster, that’s for sure.