J.G. Ballard is one of only a few really interesting literary writers of post-war Britain, but his influence is felt as heavily upon popular culture as it is upon so-called ‘high’ culture. References to his work dot the landscape of popular music like so many wrecked cars of the apocalypse. Joy Division named a song after The Atrocity Exhibition, his early experimental collection of condensed novels. The Klaxon’s first album, ‘Myths of the Near Future’, borrows its title from a collection of Ballard’s short stories. Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ was heavily influenced by Ballard’s most controversial novel, Crash, and David Bowie’s ‘Always Crashing the Same Car’ was clearly influenced by it, too.
With all this in mind, one of the funniest moments in Extreme Metaphors, a collection of some forty-four excellent interviews with the great man, comes when Jon Savage, speaking to Ballard in 1978, enthuses at length about The Velvet Underground and punk rock. He notes the way both attack “media and technological conditioning” before pausing to allow Ballard to comment. “To be honest,” he says, “I don’t listen to music. It’s just a blank spot.” Speaking to The Paris Review four years later, he comments: “I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t own a record player or a single record.”
Despite this, he listens to Savage with interest, and speaks with as much consideration and insight about the sociological aspects of contemporary music as he does elsewhere about his own personal obsessions – the suburbanisation of the soul, surrealist painting, his notion of ‘inner space’, consumerism, urban decay, the sexual fetishisation of car crashes, etc., etc.. He will return to these themes again and again and again over the course of these interviews. The fact that his doing so never once grows tiresome is a testament both to Ballard as a speaker, and to Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara as editors. Ballard was a very generous subject, speaking a combined estimate of 650,000 words in interview, often to tiny fanzines that never came to be made digital. The editors of Extreme Metaphors immersed themselves so thoroughly in this discourse that they actually end up unconsciously borrowing from Ballard’s store of recurring metaphors. Sellars writes at one point about something serving “as a kind of grit”, a metaphor Ballard revisits several times throughout the collection.
Many assessing these interviews have focused – and will continue to focus – on Ballard’s success rate as a prophet of the near-future. In 1963, for instance, he predicted that Ronald Reagan would become president of the United States. In 1978, he predicted that homes would one day be transformed into mini-television studios. He even saw social media coming and, more obliquely, the destruction of the Twin Towers. And yet, impressive as such prescience no doubt is, there’s only so long we can sit gawping at a man speaking in the past describe our present condition before it comes to seem like a very limited, almost provincial, sort of reading. “Look everybody! Look! He’s talking about us!”
As Ballard’s predictions become our lived reality and, later, our past, it is important that we draw some sort of method from Ballard’s thinking, so that we, too, might see so clearly. His vision of the future seems to have come as a side-effect of the close attention he paid to his own present. “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is to look at the present and to get away from the notion of yesterday, today, tomorrow.” He observed his present with a clinical eye, dissecting it like the corpse he worked on as a medical student in the early 1950s. In 1968, he noted how the media landscape of “advertising, TV, mass-merchandising, politics conducted as advertising” had made it almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false. “It’s not necessary for the writer to invent fiction,” he concluded. “It’s the writer’s job to find the reality.”
A shorter version of this review appears in the February edition of Totally Dublin.