Monday, 8 July 2013

A review of Baxter's biography of JG Ballard

The Inner Man is a smart, supple and jolly biography. I particularly enjoyed the brisk but forbearing way Baxter dismisses info from the horse’s mouth – no, he didn’t do that, no, he must have imagined that, nope, he didn’t read that then, I don’t care what he says etc.. There are good anecdote – Ballard hated Sister Wendy and avoided going to events where she’d be present; the British Board of Film Classification screened Cronenberg’s Crash for eleven paraplegics to make sure it was all right; Ballard would pleasantly acquiesce to requests for references, but write separate letters to the reference recipients, warning them to disregard the references. There’s also a pretty good harvest of witticisms and wry remarks. Baxter doesn’t seem overly bothered about spoilers – but then again, for most of his life, Ballard is just sitting in his house in Shepperton, so it does make sense to focus on his writing. Avoiding fetishizing Ballard’s experiences as the meaning of his works, Baxter still manages to keep up a stream of plausible suggestions of persons, incidents, environments and atmospheres which may have been fictionalised. In terms of critical curation, Baxter’s preferred cultural contexts, especially for Ballard’s sf, are mostly visual art, and are generally quite convincing. He also emphasizes the importance of advertising – the born advertiser waging holy war against consumer culture is the closest Baxter comes to a summation of Ballard. Without conspicuously cheating, and without rendering Ballard any less idiosyncratic, Baxter renders him rather a lot less enigmatic. A few reservations: I felt there was too much about movies. There were also a few too many arbitrary summaries of context: "it was 196X, the Beatles were in Tibet, opposition to the Vietnam conflict was growing, everyone was watching aliens on Star Trek, yoda yoda yoda." More importantly, I’d have liked more emphasis on the gender and sex politics of Ballard, his work and his era. Baxter suggests that if Ballard’s young wife Mary had not died, he would have forever remained a second rate writer. The main implications of Ballard "knocking around" his girlfriend are apparently her changing her look and a hiatus in Ballard’s friendship with Moorcock. Finally, I’m dubious of the handling of what you could call the critical moment in Ballard works. Baxter does Ballard a disservice by drawing so few comparisons with postmodern theorists, critical theorists and post-marxists – leaving him seeming to celebrate a rather drab brand of swaggering nihilism and butch self-fashioning. Also, Colin Waters raises what seem to be some rather sensible points in his review for The Herald!