Warehouses of Wonder: J.G. Ballard

You can see the roots of the future science-fiction writer in JG Ballard’s description of the surreal Shanghai in which he spent his childhood. Here, from the quasi-autobiographical novel The kindness of Women, is the Great World amusement park, as it was just before a stray Kuo Min Tang bomb destroyed it in 1937:

A vast warehouse of light and noise, the amusement park was filled with magicians and fireworks, slot machines and sing-song girls,. A haze of frying fat gleamed in the air and formed a greasy film on my face, mingling with the smell of joss-sticks and incense. Stunned by the din, I would follow Yang as he slipped through the acrobats and Chinese actors striking their gongs. Medicine hawkers lanced the necks of huge white geese, selling the cups of steaming blood to passers-by as the ferocious birds stamped their feet and gobbled at me when I came too close. While Yang murmured into the ears of the mah-jong dealers and marriage brokers, I peered between his legs at the exposed toilets in the lavatory stalls and at the fearsome idols scowling over the temple doorways, at the mysterious peep-shows and massage booths with their elegant Chinese girls, infinitely more terrifying than Olga, in embroidered high-collared robes slit to expose their thighs.

This is not so different from a thousand other exotic alien bars and bazaars, from Star Wars to Samuel R. Delany, and indeed it was particularly alien to the young Ballard; as we learn from his memoir, Miracles of Life, he lived in China for the first fifteen years of his life without ever learning a word of Chinese, and if he did know the name of Yang the chauffeur, that was very unusual. In general, he and his parents never used names for the servants, addressing them and referring to them as “#1 Coolie,” “#2 Boy,” or “#1 Ama.” Exoticism is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

Ballard was, I am told, a leading figure in New Wave SF in the ‘60s, which according to TOm Disch was characterized by an influx of English majors into the field. Certainly the above paragraph shows an impressive and pleasing mastery of rhetorical balance and rhythm, combining intensity with a restraint that might be welcome in the purple passages of other stylistically-ambitious SF writers (Delany, say, or China Mieville or Michael Swanwick). I should admit that I haven’t read Ballard’s SF, but even from the two books I’ve mentioned, I think that I can sense his influence on Mieville, Swanwick, and any number of other recent practitioners.

One feature JG shares with Swanwick, probably more out of temperamental resonance than literary influence, is a fondness for unpleasant sex scenes. I note with relief that Ballard’s memoir lacks some of the weirder encounters that are presented in Kindness of Women, such as dealing with grief over his wife’s sudden death by screwing her sister while her husband is running an errand. Here is a typical scene, as Jim (the quasi-Ballard) lounges on a beach with a young American woman, Sally Mumford:

She had chewed her nails to the quick and her left nipple was raw and tender. A faint chemical odor rose from the gusset of her bikini, a hint of stale spermicidal jelly, and I guessed that she had been too distracted to change her cap for a few days.

Nothing happens on this occasion, but when they do finally get it on, on the living room couch while his three children are asleep, she shouts out “Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me, Daddy!” Nice. Oh, and the above is not by any means the most icky mention of spermicidal jelly in the book.

I am not sure why Ballard gets a kick out of scenes like these; you might think that he was trying to get the reader to share his revulsion at sex or at the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t seem to be it. In Miracles of Life, he mocks the mothers of his daughters’ friends for their squeamishness, and claims that he was fine with the girls doing whatever they felt like, as long as they kept their appointments at the local family planning clinic. One element in his penchant for the gross-out is surely a desire to unsettle and provoke people, as when he organized an art show in London consisting of crashed cars. He notes with pride that the exhibit enraged visitors more than any other he could remember.

The flip side of JG the cutting-edge counterculture bad boy (his The Atrocity Exhibition included a chapter called “I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”) is JG the devoted single dad, picking up his kids from school every day and making dinner with them. Sometimes he would take them to Magic Land, as they called it, which was a lot in back of the local film studio where disused props such as giant iffigies of household products had been abandoned. Magic Land makes a kind of bookend to the Great World, and colors Ballard’s picture of himself as an empty-nester, one of my favorite things in the The Kindness of Women:

My children had set off for their universities, leaving a vacuum in my life that would never be filled. The house in Shepperton was like a warehouse discarded by the film studios, along with the plywood candy bars and toilet roll of Magic World.   The old toys and model aircraft that crammed the cupboards were the props of a long-running family sitcom which the sponsors, despite its high ratings and loyal audience, had decided to drop. The sense of being pulled out of the schedules pressed on me as I mooned around the empty bedrooms, looking at the old holiday snapshots lying in the debris….When they came home on their brief visits, eerily like cast reunions, I knew that I was the last of us to grow up.

PS: I see that I haven’t mentioned Ballard’s years in a Japanese prison camp. He later claimed to have enjoyed it, and to have had more friends there than he ever did later in life. Asked about his swanky boarding school, he said it was a lot like Lung Hua, but the food was worse.

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3 Responses to Warehouses of Wonder: J.G. Ballard

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    John was recently captivated by the movie made from Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, about a boy who is separated from his English parents in Shanghai and spends several years in a Japanese prison camp. The young quasi-JG is able to communicate meaningfully in Japanese with his captors, and I wonder whether the real JG could. The boy admires the Japanese bomber pilots whose planes take off from the field beyond the prison fence and becomes friends (through the fence) with a Japanese officer’s son. When I watched the scene where the boy is reunited with the strangers who are his parents, I wondered what kind of person such a child would grow up to be. I think you’ve answered my question with your post.

    • Roy White says:

      That boy is Christian Bale, the future Batman. He may well have learned some Japanese, since he did indeed try to fraternize with the guards. Sometimes one of them would let him put on kendo armor and beat him about the head with a practice sword while the others shouted encouragement. Later, his admiration was to some degree transferred to the Americans with their P-51 Mustangs, and he signed up with the RAF because he wanted to fly nuclear bombers (he quit after a stint in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan).

      The crazy thing about the parents is that this is his biggest deviation from reality in the novel. His parents and little sister were in G Block with him the whole time, sleeping just a couple of feet away. This of course was a huge contrast with the house in Shanghai, where they seldom saw each other. What makes a guy delete his parents from his childhood? Not sure I know the answer to that one.

      On Tue, Sep 9, 2014 at 5:01 PM, lippenheimer wrote:

      >

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    Maybe representing his parents as the British couple who sort of looked out for him, the ones he spies on while they’re having sex, let him create the distance he needed to say critical things about them. Maybe he felt that his parents really were as far removed from him as that couple were.

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