J.G. Ballard’s Pre-Posthumous Memoir
KtB contributor (Believer, Beware division) Mark Dery reviews the great J.G. Ballard’s latest and possibly last book, a “pre-posthumous memoir” titled Miracles of Life, for L.A. Weekly. “In response to my inquiry about who would be bringing out Miracles of Life in the States, and when,” writes Mark in a chronicle of his correspondence with Ballard for his blog, Shovelware, “he replied (with exasperation mellowed by resignation) that the book wouldn’t be coming out in America because—my paraphrase, not a direct quote—he was well and truly fed up with American reviewers’ middlebrow moralizing and pop-psych insistence on Deep Feelings over astringent ideas. American critics complain that his characters are crash-test dummies; that his books are plotless film loops, obsessive-compulsive meditations on the pathologies of everyday life in postmodernity.
“Ballard’s point exactly, as he writes in his incomparable introduction to the French edition of Crash (a virtual graduate seminar in a few pages, richer in insights into the postmodern condition than all of Lyotard’s books laid end to end):
The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century–sex and paranoia. […] Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.
[…] Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th-century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?
[…] I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).