Much of Ballard’s work exudes a linguistic corporeality, it is jarring and splintered, akin to a literary dissection (stemming from his days as a trainee surgeon at Cambridge in the early 50s). His surgical zooming, cropping, panning in and out (often much like the lens of a camera), and his anatomical scrutiny of the physical body through technical language overwhelms any sense of cognitive activity which, by comparison, tends to dissolve amidst spongy fields of flesh and viscerality. Many of the individuals which populate Ballard’s fiction adhere to a typecast, iterative singularity: they are emotive husks lacking any kind of impulse, as if they were mass manufactured from a finite set of cognitive moulds. This purged sense of agency is further accentuated by Ballard’s copious inclusion of endless doctors, surgeons, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicists, biologists, botanists, proctologists (you name it) all of whom are seemingly of a hive mind, bound by their fixed sets of ‘operating formulae’ and who are both rationalised and conditioned by their roles within society.
Enigmatic characters come in the form of the outcasts, the insane-by-consent characters, the psychotics and the sexual deviants. Characters like Traven, the prismatic protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition, who, much like R. D. Laing’s depiction of the psychotic, is ‘made up of fragments of what might constitute a personality’ (Laing, Divided Self, p. 73). Characters like Vaughan, the maniacal TV scientist of Crash who moonlights as a serial symphorophiliac (i.e. one who is sexually aroused by gruesome car crashes) bent on killing himself in a head-on collision with iconic screen actress Liz Taylor, an act which he perceives to be a transcendent and ‘fertilising’ event and the ultimate ‘marriage of sex and technology’. These unbridled and isolated minds which are able to deviate from and so threaten the lawfully fixed and unerring codes of societal normality serve as Ballard’s penetrative lens; they are individuals who are able to visibly restructure, and even break down the concretised landscape and its governing systems of psychological restraint. This discordant glaze of the fragmented ‘inner space’ – being Ballard’s rebuttal towards ‘outer space’ in traditional SF – atop the aggrandized mundanity of urbanity epitomises the Ballardian text.
Ballard’s probing forceps are by no means constrained to the characters within the text and he relentlessly attempts to instigate this overriding sense of cerebral vulnerability through his manipulation of the reader, and, as exposed in his second advertiser’s announcement ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’ in 1967; ‘fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire’. Thus, another layer betwixt the profoundly visceral and tactile language and the outright expulsion of impulse-driven agency, is Ballard’s dogged attempts to steer and even tap into the reader’s subconscious. Names and identities are recurrent, often reincarnated from previous stories; objects and sites are similarly echoed throughout his work in an interconnected figmental tableaux, these include – as David Pringle pinpoints – ‘concrete weapons ranges, dead fish, abandoned airfields, radio telescopes, crashed space capsules… multistorey carparks, dry lakebeds, medical laboratories, drained swimming pools, … highrise buildings, predatory birds, and low-flying aircraft’.
In his notorious Crash, which led Ballard to be hailed ‘beyond psychiatric help’ by one critic (a feat which Ballard regularly boasted about during interviews) is a transcendental, seismic collision between the media-driven, decorporealised, capitalistic, spectacle and the Oedipal fluidity of the subconscious. Ballard maintains that in Crash what he accomplishes is to ‘remove the moral framework that reassures the spectator that these horrific scenes are, in fact, constrained within some system of moral value’. The novel pinpoints and magnifies those pathological tics which are buried beneath a chunky layer of morality – a layer which, like the bodies themselves, Ballard strips clean. Ballard presents the chassis of a narrative, onto which the reader unconsciously projects their own morals and rationalities. Ballard asks us to accept his logic, to look beyond the biomorphic horror and repugnant scenes to try and find some lurking ‘benevolent psychopathology’ (Baxter and Wymer, p. 100).
In The Atrocity Exhibition, the central character Traven is followed by a ghostly trinity or ‘personae of the unconscious’ (AE, p. 68) which comprises Coma, Kline and Xero, each of whom personify varying aspects of his schizoid personality. These three are scarred and disfigured, broken and misaligned like the intermittent frames of the Zapruder film or the vast intersecting planes of a commercial billboard. One of these subconscious facets, Coma, takes the form of a horrifically burned replica of Marilyn Monroe, the personification of the postmodern epoch in which celebrity is dulled to the point of exhaustion. Ballardian fiction is more pertinent now than ever before, and time that we succumb to his ‘benevolent psychopathology’ before we are absorbed into the spectacle to never return.
Featured image by Alastair McColl
(This post comes from a paper I gave back in May ’16 at our university’s annual gothic literature conference.)