We’re reading THE JG BALLARD BOOK, edited by Rick McGrath

27 Jan

Tom Hunter enters the weird world of Ballard fandom.

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PPB, £19.99

For the vast duration of his career, author J.G. Ballard would repeatedly deny the existence of anything so mundane as an archive of his writing materials: “There are no Ballard archives. I never keep letters, reviews, research materials. Every page is a fresh start.”

Never trust a writer, of course, especially one whose personal mythology so often threatened to eclipse his fictional output, and indeed at the end of his career a small but valuable stash of novel manuscripts and cheap notepads were duly brought to the surface and donated to the safekeeping of the British Library.

Walk through the library today and, past the Shakespeare folios and notebooks of Jane Austen, you might be lucky enough to turn a corner and find the first pages of Ballard’s classic techno-nightmare Crash framed amongst the exhibits, the blue biro of his scrawled annotations revising line-by-line the precise angle of attack of hoodlum scientist Vaughan and his final staged collision/copulation with the limousine of the film actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The reveal of an “official” archive was most likely received as a mixed blessing by Ballard’s enduring fanbase. Even as you signed up for a reader pass. you secretly hoped his previous denials would prove true, adding further fuel to the myth.

Indeed, is there any other author of the 20th and early 21st Century whose body of work has inspired the same obsessional and influential fanbase as Ballard’s?

Enter The JG Ballard Book, the latest entry into the ever-multiplying library of the Ballardosphere, and something of a unique oddity amongst a profusion of critical texts, interview compilations and the occasional hack biography.

The copy on my desk is the large-format hardcover edition, and first impressions suggest something more akin to the exhibition catalogue of a moderately fashionable contemporary art gallery than either the recently published Extreme Metaphors, a collection of interviews with JGB, or the more modest indie publishing efforts of a typical fanzine. This comparison carries through into the contents, which are made up of fifteen or so assorted interviews, essays, speculations and even spoofs accompanied by full-page photo artworks and blow-ups of original handwritten letters and manuscript annotations.

It’s almost as though Tate Modern or the ICA had embarked down the road towards a radical re-staging of Ballard’s career, only to abandon the project at the last minute, leaving only this alternate history account of a lost exhibition buried in the collective deep-time memory of only the most dedicated or pathological Ballardophiles.

As with Ballard’s own archive the results are mixed, and for every dusty notebook containing the first hints at a potential new novel, there are moments of clumsy dead-ends, strange wrong turns and circular reasoning that might have been better left to history’s cutting room floor, or at least the letters page of a science=fiction convention fanzine. In the end, though, perhaps this adherence to ephemera is both the whole point and the only possible strategy in a post-Ballard world.

Read the introduction to a recovered and reprinted interview from the “one-issue wonder” magazine Repsychling from the mid-1970s. It opens with the story of “collector, archivist and bibliophile” Mike Holliday’s efforts to acquire a copy, once he heard that it contained a previously forgotten Ballard interview. The interview itself is typical Ballard-as-crowd-pleasing-entertainer – stories about arguing with hospital staff over the copyright of his own skull x-rays after a car crash and so on. It’s the introduction – this inadvertent insight into the collector mindset – that proves most revealing. This is after all a book for Ballard fans, more than for casual readers.

Editor Rick McGrath’s own essay – an exploration of Ballard’s Shanghai in search of his old family home and the remains of his prisoner-of-war internment camp – is a romp improved by Ballard’s own encouraging letters and back-of-a-napkin-style memory maps. Ballard’s own summary, that “the Shanghai I knew, along with 31 Amherst Street and Lunghua camp, can only survive inside my head” ultimately renders the project more whimsical than essential.

Still, Ballard interviews in particular are always worth the time, and there are moments when The JG Ballard Book rises above its bricolage editorial approach and becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Read Mike Bonsall’s piece “JG Ballard in the Dissecting Room”, which juxtaposes profoundly anatomical passages of description from Ballard’s novels with illustrations from Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy, a text Ballard would have been exposed to as part of his medical training. (There are no marginal additions from the man himself on this occasion, although the often indecipherable photosets of his scrawled notebooks and letters elsewhere suggest he would have easily passed the doctors handwriting exam had he chosen to pursue this vocation.)

The pathology of fandom is perhaps most obviously revealed through a predilection for collecting. With that diagnosis in mind, I feel very happy indeed to have been anatomised by The JG Ballard Book, even as I add it to the shelves of my own personal Ballard exhibition.

@clarkeaward

Claire Dean finds J G Ballard’s brittle disaster novel inspiring real crystal worlds in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Georgina Voss wanders in ever-decreasing circles round an empty swimming pool.

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