Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Farewell: James Graham Ballard 1930 - 2009

I just learned that my favorite author - J.G. Ballard - passed away this past Sunday. The obits are just now starting to pop up:

I first became aware of Ballard in high school via Stephen Spielberg's film Empire of the Sun which was based on Ballard's autobiographical novel detailing his experiences while interred in a Chinese prison camp. Christian Bale made his film debut as James Graham, the character based on Ballard. The film was the first of Spielberg's "serious films" which he has continued to make in-between his box office blockbusters.

Several years later - while working at Lone Star Comics & Science Fiction - I was introduced to Ballard's writing. The store manager, knowing that I was a fan of Philip K. Dick, commented that I might find Ballard to be a sort of kindred spirit to Dick. Crash was the first of Ballard's books that I read which was quite an introduction to the author's work. Nearly 20 years later it still stands as the densest book I've ever read in my life. Each and every single word is important. It is not a book to be read at a leisurely pace. I followed up Crash with Concrete Island which detailed the trials and travails of an everyman involved in an auto accident in which he finds himself trapped within a highway cloverleaf. Injured he is unable to garner the attention of motorists passing by just dozens of feet away. And that was one of the things that made Ballard great: he had a knack for taking something that on the surface would seem to be a mundane idea and expand on it until he created a rich and vibrant world. There was a sense of confinement that ran through many of his works, no doubt an after-product of his childhood.

Ballard also had a gift for seeing everyday objects in a slightly skewered way. How many times have each of us traveled on a highway cloverleaf never considering that there might be an alternate society just on the other side of the guard rail existing parallel to our own? Ballard was also responsible for introducing me to the concept that architecture is comprised of various phalluses and globes [look no further than Dallas's own 24-hour hard-on, Reunion Tower].
Ballard was visionary in predicting the uprise in youth violence [Running Wild] and the rise of the hardcore environmentalist [Rushing to Paradise]. Along the way he authored additional cautionary tales of society as well as a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun [The Kindness of Women]. He took fewer artistic licenses with autobiography Miracles of Life. Only time will tell if his document of his battle with cancer will be released [Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life].

Ballard's legacy will be varied. The Collins English Dictionary contains a word with the following definition: resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments. The word is "Ballardian." David Cronenberg - who wrote and directed a filmed adaptation of Crash - has produced a catalog of films that can best be described as, well, Ballardian. Ballard's influence on music will continue as well. Ian Curtis of Joy Division was a fan of his. Ditto for Thom Yorke [Radiohead] and Andrew Eldritch [Sisters of Mercy]. Even the opening track of Madonna's Ray of Light album is said to have been inspired by Ballard's work. Certainly Ballard will continue to inspire future generations via those directly inspired by him.

I wrote to Ballard while I was living in Seattle in the late 1990s a few years after the release of Rushing to Paradise wondering if he was coming out with any more books. Imagine my surprise to receive a response that, yes indeed, Cocaine Nights was on its way. He also recommended that in the meantime I check out an up-and-coming British author named Geoff Nicholson. Within weeks I had devoured Nicholson's Hunters and Gatherers and The Food Chain. A brief correspondence with Ballard followed that lapsed when I moved back down here to the metromess.

Ballard's writings have influenced me in ways that no other writer has. My slightly skewed outlook on life was sparked by his work. His passing saddens me in a way that no other passing has in many, many years. He will live on through the written word. Books live. Man fades.

"A lot of my propecies about the alienated society are going to come true... Everybody's going to be starring in their own porno films as extensions of the polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It's going to be commercial and nasty at the same time, like "Rite of Spring" in Disney's Fantasia ... our internal devils may destroy and renew us through the technological overload we've invoked."

- J.G. Ballard [interview in Heavy Metal, April 1971]

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