Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Grief straight from the bucket

An old review, first published in Interzone 212 (Rick McGrath's fuller review is here).

Dominika Oramus, Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard.

Grave New World presents an ambitious and rich account of Ballard's ouevre, tracing a handful of themes (apocalyptic social implosion, war phantasmagoria, pathological boredom, the Death Drive, the dialectic between mental and physical landscapes) from The Wind from Nowhere, Ballard's 1961, strapped-for-cash brain fart debut, through his early science fiction in its various engagements with New Wave and other avant-garde contexts, his postmodern memoirs, all the way through the recent paranoid fables up to and including Kingdom Come (2006). Not unusually for a book foreshadowed by academic papers, there's a fair amount of repetition, but it's no bad thing -- it means you can generally dip in and pick up the thread fairly quickly.

Oramus has a go at jigsawing her chosen themes into the underlying & unifying core of Ballard's work. I query not whether she succeeds but why she bothers -- whether or not Ballard's work possesses deep invariances, it is certainly superficially various, and any sharp reader will be as interested in the variety as the core. More useful than those monopolising conclusions are the early chapters, which summarise major critical approaches to Ballard's work and supply potted introductions to the theorists who most inform it (Nietzsche, Spengler, Jung, Fukuyama . . . the list goes on!). Grave New World might have paid a little more attention, in this section, to the Marxist heritage of several theorists (Debord in particular comes across as Baudrillard's, sort of, squire), as well as to the ways their ideas have been received and challenged in recent years. "The represented world seems more real than the world outside of pictures" -- this supposed to be, like uh, a newsflash? In justice, Grave New World only wants truck with such theory for what it can illumine in Ballard's work, but here again the book misses a trick. Ballard is an extraordinary storyteller and poet (as soon as any study of him immures sufficient quotation, & Oramus does, that becomes clear). Inasmuch as Ballard's work also performs expositions and criticisms of contemporary Western society, it exists in the tension between, on the one hand, accuracy and lucidity, and on the other, what makes a good story. Taking it seriously should also mean trying to work out how true its ideas are; that means situating them in intellectual traditions in which they are unpopular.

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