The Pacifics of Our Imaginations:
The Complete Short Stories
“In the codes of Renata’s body, in the junctions of nipple and finger, in the sulcus of her buttocks, waited the possibilities of a benevolent psychopathology.” (Zodiac 2000)
“Its ruined appearance [was] profoundly depressing, an Auschwitz of the soul whose mausoleums contained the mass graves of the still undead.” (The Terminal Beach)
“Already other memories were massing around him, fragments that he was certain belonged to another man’s life, details from the case history of an imaginary patient whose role he had been tricked into playing. As he worked on the Fortress high among the dunes, brushing the sand away from the cylinder vanes of the radial engines, he remembered other aircraft he had been involved with, vehicles without wings.” (My Dream of Flying to Wake Island)
There are some images that you can’t imagine anyone but J. G. Ballard laying out for you; some sentences that no one but he could write; some concepts that few but this great artist could come up with.
Through the miracle of youtube, and an internet that allows us to archive the past with a single click, I recently watched an old ‘South Bank Show’ interview with Ballard, conducted with his customary competent ease by Melvyn Bragg. Ballard spoke of how lucky he had been in his life to be able to continuously document his own obsessions through the decades.
This massive – and massively important – single volume of his short stories lets us see how remarkably consistent and cohesive those obsessions were.
For many readers Ballard’s largely autobiographical 1984 novel Empire of the Sun simply welcomed him into the world of mainstream literature; but for those of us who had followed his work over the years it was a pure revelation: here at last was the key that allowed us to partially understand the workings to the inner life of this highly complex man.
Here, finally, was the answer to where his persistent images of drained swimming pools, crashed aircraft and abandoned hotels had originated. Here too we began to understand the strange and passive acceptance that his characters show of both global disasters and personal ones.
Born in Shanghai in 1930, where his father was a businessman, the young boy did much of his growing-up in an internment camp after Japan went to war with China and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. A young Christian Bale played him superbly in Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the book Empire of the Sun. And it strikes me that Ballard has been better served by the cinema than most authors. Even better than the Spielberg film, there is last year’s High-Rise from director Ben Wheatley and David Cronenberg’s brilliant Crash from 1996.
Ballard has said:
“Shanghai itself was one of the most extraordinary and bizarre places on earth, a place where anything went, completely without constraints. Every conceivable political and social crosscurrent was in collision there. War in all its forms was institutionalized in Shanghai, after the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937.”
I ‘met’ Ballard only the once. It was at a book signing in Dublin for The Kindness of Women. He was incredibly gracious with his time and very patient in his answers to some pretty thick questions from one particularly idiotic individual (not me, you at the back!).
Most striking was that here was this smartly dressed Englishman with the perfectly enunciated vowels and yet speaking of subjects that seemed to belong on the lips of someone else: should we have ever ventured into space; the impossibility of making an accurate war film unless you literally crammed the screen with corpses; what he meant when writing about sexuality and car crashes. It was all very odd and very stimulating.
Flying to Wake Island…
Arriving in England after the war, Ballard consciously decided rarely to talk about his upbringing, concentrating instead on a new way of life and studying medicine for two years before joining the Royal Air Force in 1954 and heading off to a Canadian flight training base.
His interest in writing short stories was growing, however; and the volume at hand collects his work from 1954 through to 1992. It is not quite as ‘complete’ as it claims, but it is close enough that over almost 1,200 remarkable pages we get a very full sense of just what a major writer Ballard truly was. (Alan Moore once memorably described him as “the greatest living Englishman.”)
There are far too many stories here to mention them all. But I had forgotten how great pieces such as A Question of Re-Entry, The Man Who Walked on the Moon, The Volcano Dances or The Giaconda of the Twilight Noon really are.
Then there are the polar opposites of the exquisitely beautiful The Garden of Time and – at the far side of the spectrum — The Air Disaster, which is one of the most horrific and haunting stories I have ever read.
And somewhere in between there is the almost Swiftian rapture of The Drowned Giant.
And – of course – all of the stories set in that wonderful beach art resort of Vermillion Sands are here. If the afterlife turns out to be living there for all eternity, that will be all right with me.
This enormous collection – utterly indispensible for Ballard enthusiasts – reminds the reader so often of just how far ahead he was looking, and not just with his early tales of climate change. Here’s part of his TV programming from A Guide to Virtual Death:
“6.00 Today’s Special: Virtual Reality TV presents ‘The Kennedy Assassination.’ The Virtual Reality head-set takes you to Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. First you fire the assassin’s rifle from the Book Depository window, and then you sit between Jackie and JFK in the Presidential limo as the bullet strikes. For premium subscribers only – feel the Presidential brain tissue spatter your face OR wipe Jackie’s tears onto your handkerchief.
“11.00 Today’s Special. Tele-Orgasm. Virtual Reality TV takes you to an orgy. Have sex with Marilyn Monroe and Madonna OR Warren Beatty and Tom Cruise. For premium subscribers only – experience transexualism, paedophilia, terminal syphilis, gang-rape, and bestiality (choice: German Shepherd or Golden Retriever.)”
Give it time; just give it time.
We would certainly have lost a great deal if we didn’t have such novels as The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Hello America or Crash; but the argument for the colossal importance of J.G. Ballard could without doubt be made with just this one huge collection alone.
As mentioned above, Ballard’s characters generally embraced the disasters that hit them. In 2006 it was the writer’s turn to do likewise, as he learned that he had terminal cancer. His final book, written after his diagnosis, was Miracles of Life.
James Graham Ballard died in 2009.
“I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
“I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-story car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
“I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics our imaginations.
“I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness of ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.
“I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.
“I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light”.
– Selected from What I Believe By Ballard
JG Ballard: The Complete Short Stories