Friday, November 15, 2019

Distance from Ballard

This is an interview with JG Ballard published in the NME in October 1985. It lives in a scrapbook of articles I kept as my interest shifted from music to books.

According to my records, 1985 was the year before I started reading novels; my records being a slip of paper from 1986 with twenty-four books listed and scored, not one of which is by JG Ballard. And yet I know in that library spree I read The Drowned World (which I first typed as The Drowned Sea, a more intriguing title), The Crystal World, High Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, Empire of the Sun, and the story collection Vermillion Sands. Back then the interview stirred me with the idea of a novel that watches England from a train window. I borrowed these books hoping for a narration from this vantage point, and was always disappointed, no doubt because it is not meant to describe Ballard's novels literally. I soon realised, though not soon enough, that I was allergic to hyperrealism, indeed to genre fiction in general. It was the word distance that stirred me, and that word has recurred in my writing many times since.

In 1986 my list began with the novel that set me on the path that I knew at once was mine to take, but still I think of the interview each time I travel by train to stare vacantly at the landscape and the objects and lives within it. I glimpse a thousand curtained windows of homes and with each one, or all of them combined, I imagine a retreat from the relentless pressure of a journey and the infernal genres of human busyness; a quiet room where one can be at peace, thinking, reading, listening to the stillness; a room somehow nothing like my own. Bill Callahan's song suggests this thought is not unique.

The last JG Ballard book I read was The Day of Creation in 1987, reviewed here by Martin Amis.

His suggestion that Ballard's novels "address a different–a disused–part of the reader's brain" rings true and must be close to what Victoria Best calls the "extraordinary elasticity" of some narratives that she says "open up spaces" in her mind, which is something other than flights of the imagination, and not quite Proustian reveries either, but something like a clearing in the forest. This would mitigate the otherwise lamentable influence Ballard has on the current generation of British writers, but this, what seems to be the most valuable and most obscure gift of the novel, is not something that can be easily discussed from a distance, from within the forest. However, as demonstrated by my apparent need to note down the first novel on my first book list, it is the only thing worth writing about.

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