Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
The second Vogue text, “The Diary of A Mad Space-wife” (1979), he describes the life in one of the hundreds of satellite cities on the Earth’s orbit. Future life, entertainment and abortive work lead people to depression and space-madness. The article combines SF-like ideas and descriptions with bits and pieces of the real-life astronauts’ memories and recorded dialogues. The atmosphere is sad and nostalgic, the article shows, that the Space Age is really over, no one dreams of space conquests, and what we are left with is TV. The beginning of the eighties is for Ballard the end of artistic involvement with SF (he never abandons the genre as a writer of fiction, but ceases to see it as means of social education and artistic experiments) and he turns to quasi-autobiographical writing.
The tremendous artistic success of Empire of the Sun marked a sudden breakthrough in Ballard’s literary career. After nearly thirty years of continuous writing and publishing both fiction and nonfiction he was eventually recognized as a modern classicist writing autobiography and Second World War novels. Set in pre-war Shanghai and the Lunghua camp, where the Japanese interned British civilians during the war, the novel was generally received as a ‘confession’ of the real-life sources of Ballard’s literary fascinations and obsessions and often confused with factual account of his early years. His popular image of an orientalist (enhanced by the acclaimed Steven Spielberg film of Empire) prompted numerous essays and reviews to do with China and Japan he was asked to write in subsequent years.
Some of this nonfiction is explicitly autobiographical, for example “Unlocking the Past” (1991), written for the Daily Telegraph, is the report on the Ballard’s visit to Shanghai which took place during the making of the Spielberg film. Ballard writes this text for readers who know his novel: there are implied comparisons of Shanghai at the end of the 20th century and the city described in the Empire. Ballard visits the places important for Jim, his fictitious persona (without referring to the book or summarizing it), and the suspense works only if we wait for him to trace his prison room. At the same time the article has certain features of a travelogue:
The first day I moved around Shanghai in a daze. Memories jostled me like the Chinese crowds who surrounded the film crew. Watching as the Belgian lad cycled past the Cathy Hotel, where Noël Coward had written Private Lives, I remembered the Shanghai of gangsters and beggar-kings, prostitutes and pickpockets. I had opened a door and stepped into a perfectly preserved past, though a past equipped with a number of unattractive reflexes of my own – walking along the Nanking Road, I caught myself expecting the Chinese pedestrians to step out of my way. (Ballard 1991b: 175)
Ballard creates here his own image; partly an elderly English sentimental tourist, partly a boy from half a century earlier with his imperial ways of a colony dweller and describes the modern, exotic city from such a perspective. We read about his walks throughout the city, the visit to the former Ballard house, and a trip to Lunghua, his search and the final retrieval of memories of his younger self. All of these adventures are described in such away as to emphasize the real life details, which he had incorporated to Empire. This article is in itself a piece of fiction, a footnote to Empire, in which Ballard presents his half-literary persona; the writer of Empire, an English intellectual with vivid though naïve memories of a rich European boy in the colonial China.
This persona is used in numerous other journalistic texts, which Ballard wrote in the nineties: from this perspective he judged Chinese books, discussed the history of Asia, the Second World War and recent political changes. A good sample of this style is the beginning of “Survival Instincts” (1992), a review of Wild Swans, a Chinese woman’s memoir, published in the Sunday Times;