Like many other 35-year-old readers, I discovered British author J.G. Ballard when Steven Spielberg directed a big-screen adaptation of his 1984 novel “Empire of the Sun” with Christian Bale and John Malkovich. One reason the movie was less than successful, I thought then and think now, was because of a salty, morbid tang that ran through the 1987 film’s depiction of Ballard’s semi-autobiographical memoir about growing up in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. This was not Spielberg saccharin, though it did shine through with the best aspects of his directing style.
It was David Cronenberg’s 1996 ice-cold film adaptation of Ballard’s 1973 novel “Crash” that really caught my attention. I still can’t tell if the book and the movie — an extremely non-erotic portrait of people who derive sexual thrills and much, much more profound satisfaction from smashing into each other in vehicles traveling at high speed — are nihilistic, fetishistic or a simple, violent story of science fiction happening right now. From there it was on to a series of images that haunt his fans to this day: drained swimming pools, nightmare auto collisions, dead astronauts waiting patiently to return to earth.
Cronenberg’s movie prompted me to start buying up Ballard’s novels and short stories over the next few years. In them, I discovered themes of psychological alienation in the modern world that persisted from his earliest short stories to his latest novels, written in the past decade. Many media outlets are discussing those themes elsewhere on Monday after Ballard died of cancer on Sunday, so I’ll leave them to it. Ballard’s themes — and there are too many to count here — are easy to pin down, but sometimes so simple that they elude easy understanding. He thrived on vague recesses of the human mind that require, thankfully, multiple readings of his books.
One thing makes him worth noting on MediaFile: Ballard frequently wrote about messages delivered through images — particularly advertisements. He was a clear-eyed and at times ruthless observer of the delivery of messages and images aimed at getting inside people’s heads and prompting them to do things. An example is short story whose name currently escapes me (Please remind me if you know!): A psychiatrist tells of treating a violent patient who is obsessed with messages being delivered to him on billboards and through other means, prompting him and others toward rampant buying of retail goods. The patient’s ravings are dismissed, all the while the analyst and everyone around him step up their cycle of buying things as quickly as they can, lured into a frenzy of purchases by images that only the crazy man thinks are aggressive, violent and wrong.
It’s up to the reader to say whether Ballard thought this was good or bad. He often spent time arguing that his stories were about the opposite of what readers thought they were. Either way, it’s worth reading Ballard’s stories about modern living and seeing what corporations’ attempts to increase shareholder value look like at the end of the consumer chain, where you, the buyer, are doing your best to make the system work.