GRAVE NEW WORLD – introduction

Grave New World

The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

Luckhurst proves his thesis of Ballard’s fiction as exposing reading conventions by discussing in subsequent chapters disaster story convention, surrealist writing, postcolonial writing, and theories of avant-garde and of contemporary reality as simulation. In each case Ballard’s books are showed as both transgressing genres and subversing the oppositions they are based on. The conclusion is expectably that Ballard’s “oeuvre will not give up its irreducible core” (Luckhurst 1997: xix), which very well sums up over forty years of critical discussion of Ballard’s place on the twentieth century literary map.

Nowadays Ballard is recognized as major contemporary English novelist by the critical establishment and he is usually referred to as an author writing across high and low, literary and popular paradigms. His webside page in the Internet is frequently visited by numerous fans from all over the world who find here countless reviews, short interviews and essays in different languages. His name is no longer associated with ‘fringe’ or ‘marginal’ literary life but is a part of the legitimate centre – he has found his way to histories of contemporary literature. A good example of critical evaluation of Ballard is a monograph published in the prestigious British Council sponsored series Writers and Their Work meant to briefly present the most important British authors to the reading public. J.G. Ballard (1998) by Michel Delville is a very good short presentation of all his most important works, arranged in chronological order it retraces subsequent stages in Ballard’s career trying to show this diverse oeuvre as an example of artistic evolution. Delville is aware that critical assessment of Ballard is very heterogeneous:

At least three J.G. Ballards have so far been championed in critical studies and literary histories: the science fiction writer, famous for his disaster novels and stories of entropic dissolution; and admirer of William S. Burroughs and author of scandalous tales remarkable for their sexual frankness and eccentric violence; and the Booker Prize nominee, whose account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai in Empire of the Sun was published to great acclaim in 1984. (Delville 1998: 1)

Delville is aware of the temptation to draw a clear-cut line between Ballard’s ambitious popular fiction and his mainstream novels; he also is careful not to reduce Ballard to a case of ‘prolonged artistic maturation’ of a science fiction writer who finally manages to disentangle himself from the immature genre. Instead he treats Ballard’s obsessive and imaginary writing as means to reflect the violent paradoxes of life in the twentieth century that escape less anxious discourses. Such an approach seems to me very fair and it is quite similar to my own critical standpoint, but as there have been so many exhaustive studies devoted to assimilating Ballard to generic categories (or abolishing the notion of genre fiction) I would rather refrain from repeating their arguments.

My idea is to juxtapose Ballard’s oeuvre not with different kinds of modern fiction but with cultural and philosophical reflection concerning the recent changes in our civilization. Therefore, I am going to abstain from voicing out my personal opinion on science fiction and the mainstream but rather to treat Ballard’s output as an intellectual whole. His views and philosophy do evolve in the last fifty years but it is continuous philosophical evolution whose logic can tell us a lot about the bygone century. Before embarking on this intellectual voyage we have to look at the way Ballard constructs his own persona – a focaliser via whose eyes we see the cruelty of the contemporary culture.