In Disobedient Rooms
The publication of any book by J.G. Ballard at this moment--let alone so colossal and career-spanning a volume as The Complete Stories, running to nearly 1,200 pages--is an occurrence that can only be about more than itself. All writers are writers of their time, of course, but Ballard, who after a fight with cancer died in April 2009, feels somehow uniquely, precisely so. This book marks the fact that we are all post-Ballard now: it's not that we've gotten beyond him but rather that we remain ineluctably defined by him. Completists have pointed out that, its title notwithstanding, this volume is not a truly comprehensive collection of all Ballard's published short fiction. Those few omissions are a disappointment. Nevertheless, they are few, and despite them the book is indispensable.
The volume's ninety-eight stories (including two written for this edition) are printed in chronological order of publication, which illuminates Ballard's trajectory. There is something fascinating and poignant about watching various obsessions appear, reappear or come gradually or suddenly into focus: birds, flying machines, ruins, beaches, obscure geometric designs, the often-noted empty swimming pools. That the earlier stories are on the whole less compelling than the later, and more numerous, suggests a career-long process of distillation, a rendering-down. Both in facility and insight, early works such as the wincingly punning "Prima Belladonna"--the first of many journeys to Vermilion Sands, an artists' colony-cum-fading seaside resort supposedly somewhere in the real world though full of impossibilities and dream technologies--or "Now: Zero" and "Track 12," rather overwrought Dahl-esque tales of the unexpected, are slight compared with the later dense and strange forensics. Many of the stories function as testing grounds for Ballard's novels. For the admirer of his longer work there is the slightly disconcerting pleasure of déjà vu, of stumbling into précis and dry runs. Here are various aspects of Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Crystal World. This book is a valedictory, an event, the ground-laying for investigations.
Still, among what must be considered these mostly minor early Ballards, enjoyable-enough exercises pegged often on single ideas or images ("Chronopolis": what if timekeeping were illegal?; "Billennium": what if no one had any living space at all?) are important moments of exceptionality. The relatively early "The Waiting Grounds" prods at the sheer unthinkability of time in ways that would be dramatically pronounced later. On an inhospitable planet, peculiar evidence pushes the narrator, Quaine, to have visions of beings who have slowed their temporal subjectivities by extraordinary factors, waiting for some "mantle of ideation," some unthinkable Godot, that may or may not be a "cosmic redeemer." The epochal, inhuman patience Quaine touches occurs in what he calls "Deep Time." "The Voices of Time," from 1960, arrives like an outrider of later Ballard, with gnostic sigils carved in swimming pools and the pre-emptive evolution--prevolution?--of extraordinary creatures maladapted for the here and now by their very adaptations for possible futures: a frog laboring under a radiation-repelling lead carapace; chromatophagic anemones, preparing to feed in and on a "world of violent colour contrasts"; spiders that spin their own brain matter for varying neurological needs.
And there's "Manhole 69," from 1957, about the effects of an experiment in sleeplessness. Ballard interrupts the relatively workaday prose and generic as-you-know-Bob explanations with an extraordinary image of a shrinking room. There is a subtradition in imaginative fiction about the horrors of disobedient geometry, ranging from John Buchan's "Space," with its nervous dream of "triangular railway platforms with trains running simultaneously down all three sides and not colliding," to, surely the ne plus ultra of the tradition, H.P. Lovecraft's magnificent reference in "The Call of Cthulhu" to "an angle of masonry which shouldn't have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse." Ballard's geometric "planes severing in a multi-dimensional flux" are similarly disobedient, but they do not crush the room's inhabitants or close mouthlike and rapaciously on them: rather, they change from one everyday space (a large hall) to another (a manhole). The horror for the inhabitants is not the impossible shift, which they do not perceive, but the claustrophobic roomness in which they remain and notice themselves.
More than a quarter-century later, Ballard inverted the conceit with "The Enormous Space," in which a man's refusal to leave a suburban house bloats it until, psychotic, he perceives it as a universe. (In a slighter variation, "Report on an Unidentified Space Station," the entirety of our cosmos exists within one set of rooms.) The pornography of infinity is a longstanding science fiction trope. H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon, among many others, counterpose the vasty deeps of the universe, the interplanetary sublime, with a specklike human subjectivity to produce a by-now rather well-worn satori of unconvincing humility. (This is brilliantly and affectionately parodied by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, with its Total Perspective Vortex.) In "The Enormous Space," Ballard's skewed fidelity to the trope transforms the banal topography of a living room or a kitchen into something unthinkable, and we respond with genuine awe at the narrator's lunatic Scott-of-the-Antarctic explorations of his kitchen. Whether they contract or expand, Ballard's rooms never change, and never let us go.
There can be as many Ballardian worlds as readers, and thus many Ballards. (For whom what is the collective noun: A flight? A fugue? An empty pool of Ballards?) Each of those Ballards is real enough to someone, thrown up by a reader who experiences the world through the fiction. Even the word "Ballardian" is now commonplace, enshrined not only in the url of an extensive website of speculative cultural investigation but also the entirely mainstream and eminently respectable Collins English Dictionary. But this profusion of Ballards cannot deter one from passing judgment among them: these Ballards must be compared, and some found more Ballardian than others.
Zadie Smith, in a typically insightful and provocative piece in the Guardian, describes Ballard's stories as "at once well made, full of the supposedly contemptible components--plot, setting, character--and yet irreducibly strange in proportion." Irreducibly strange, certainly, but the image here of a literature that is "weird"--her word--despite appearing to obey conventional rules of fiction is not quite convincing. No one would deny that Ballard is interested in setting. Like the Surrealists he so admired and refers to so often, he renders setting in an obsessive and visionary manner. With its flat, vivid colors, with or without human habitation, under red suns and in sands, and with its carefully examined and itemized physical minutiae, Ballard's "entire landscape," to borrow a phrase from "The Venus Hunters," seems "haunted by strange currents and moods." But character and plot?
There is, to be fair, plot aplenty, but on the whole Ballard is least weird at his most conventionally plotty. Particularly in his early stories, the attempts to work through beginnings, middles and ends, let alone with "revelations" or "twists," range from the pleasingly efficient to the clunky. It tends to be despite plot that the stories ensnare, and--I'm leaving aside the brilliant but difficult and overtly formally experimental texts or works made up of an index or questionnaire or footnotes or an invented zodiac--Ballard is at his most powerful when he presents a sequence of described events as if it were a plot but does not deliver anything approaching conventional catharsis or a clever reveal.
One of his greatest works, "The Drowned Giant," for example, is also one of the most formally straightforward-seeming. There are no post-Burroughs cut-up shenanigans. The story opens with a hook--where did this dead giant on the beach come from?--and follows in a simple temporal line from that beginning through the middle to an end, abjuring even flashbacks. But while this might look, at a squint, like a narrative arc, there is no rising action. The mystery is deliberately understated and rapidly tails off into a bureaucratized dismemberment. There is no climax, unless it is the exaggeratedly muted mention en passant that the giant's head is missing. There is no falling action and no denouement. A drowned giant is found and removed. Its life and death, the only events demanding investigation, have passed by the time we arrive and remain unexamined. Nothing happens, is revealed or explained. The work is, and surely not despite this antiplot, utterly compelling.