I first went to the Cannes Film Festival seven years ago; coincidentally, I’d just finished reading JG Ballard’s novel, Super-Cannes, about murder in an ultra-modern business park tucked away in the hills above town. On a morning unencumbered by meetings, film screenings or a hangover, I took a cab from my hotel in Grasse up to Sophia-Antipolis, one of Ballard’s models for the novel’s Eden-Olympia technopole.
It struck me, as the cab drove round pristine asymmetrical lawns, past the white concrete and powder blue glass buildings, the bougainvilleas and cycads, that like the best science fiction writers, Ballard wasn’t really writing about the future. After all, seeing just how maddeningly perfect and polite Sophia-Antipolis is, you could easily imagine a character like Super-Cannes’ psychiatrist Wilder Penrose standing here next to one of the fountains, under the azure blue Mediterranean sun, explaining in perfectly reasonable and measured tones his theories about the imminent “Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies.”
Ballard’s great theme, which he brilliantly captured in novels like High Rise and Super-Cannes and the short story collection Vermillion Sands, explored what happens when madness descends on a privileged and apparently peaceful closed community. As bleak and dystopian as they were, the novels were not without a conspicuously puissant strain of black humour -– as Ballard opened High Rise, “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” Hilarious and horrible, equally.
In his last two novels, Millennium People and Kingdom Come, Ballard turned his attention to middle England, where “The suburbs dream of violence.” Perhaps unfashionably, I actually prefer these books at back end of Ballard’s career to the quasi-surreal futuristic symphonies of his early novels. Having grown up in middle England, it’s not hard to imagine something nasty rustling in the privet hedges or maniacal schemes emerging over drinks in the tennis club. Ballard found a dark poetry in the modern landscape of shopping malls, airports and motorways; the consumerist drive. “Everything is for sale now,” he wrote. “Even the human soul has a barcode. We’re driven by bizarre consumer trends, weird surges in the entertainment culture, mass paranoias about new diseases that are really religious eruptions. How to get a grip on all this?”
There was something extraordinarily pessimistic about Ballard’s novels. Skimming through his books last night, I noticed that the closing lines of his last novel Kingdom Come, about a shopping centre in a fictional commuter belt town, drew glum conclusions about the human condition: “One day there would be another Metro-Centre and another desperate and deranged dream… In time, unless the same woke and rallied themselves, an even fiercer republic would open the doors and spin the turnstiles of its beckoning paradise.”
As for Ballard on film, I think Spielberg’s version of Empire Of The Sun — Ballard’s memoir of internment in a Japanese PoW camp -– is my favourite, and arguably Spielberg’s finest film. It’s a robust, old fashioned loss of innocence story — ironic, perhaps, considering Ballard was more preoccupied with the future. There’s many standout scenes in Spielberg’s film, particularly sequence where Jim Graham (Christian Bale) and his fellow PoWs discover a hoard of looted goods -– cars, wardrobes, hatstands, you name it –- still and silent in the wilderness is extraordinarily surreal. As is what follows, when Jim witnesses what he believes to be the light of Miranda Richardson’s Mrs Victor dying and going to Heaven; a brilliant white flash in the distance that, it later transpires, is the blast from Hiroshima. These are incredible movie moments. You wonder what David Lean would have done.
Crash, certainly, is an exceptional novel, Ballard’s most challenging, a “deviant thesis,” as he described it in his autobiography, Miracles Of Life. “I would openly propose a strong connection between sexuality and the car crash,” he wrote. “A fusion driven largely by the cult of celebrity. It seemed obvious that the deaths of famous people in car crashes resonated far more deeply than their deaths in plane crashes or hotel fires, as one could see from Kennedy’s death in his Dallas motorcade (a special kind of car crash), to the grim and ghastly death of Princess Diana in the Paris underpass.” It perhaps made sense that it was shot by David Cronenberg, who’d gamely turned his hand to another unfilmable novel, William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch. I think it’s an incredibly assured film, dark and intelligent and as perverse as the novel itself.
That we’ve known of Ballard’s impending death for a while — his autobiography ended on the revelation that he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones — doesn’t make it any less of a shock. He was a brilliant writer, one of the best post-war English novelists with a wholly original take on the world.