Ballard’s language is often visceral, corporeal, somewhat like a kind of literary dissection, this perhaps stemming from his days as a trainee surgeon at Cambridge in the early 50s. His language is indeed 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 subjectivity which 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 impulse, as if mass manufactured from a finite set of cognitive moulds. This purged sense of agency is 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 blinded, rationalised and conditioned by their sterilised roles.
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 (one who is 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, its psychological restraints. This fragmentary ‘inner space’ embodies Ballard’s rebuttal towards ‘outer space’ in traditional SF.
Ballard’s probing forceps are not 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’. Ballard doggedly attempts to channel and tap into the readerly (or writerly in a Barthesian sense) subconscious. Names and identities are recurrent, often reincarnated from previous stories and Ballard’s autobiographical past. Objects and sites are similarly echoed throughout his work in a figmental tableaux: ‘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’ (David Pringle).
In Crash, a work which led to Ballard being hailed ‘beyond psychiatric help’ by one critic (a feat which Ballard regularly boasted about during interviews) we see a transcendental, seismic collision between the media-driven, decorporealised, capitalistic, spectacle and Oedipal drives. 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 perhaps more pertinent now than ever before, and his ‘benevolent psychopathology’ seems all the more inviting as we are steadily absorbed into the great void of the spectacle, never to 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.)