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Articles and Reviews: BOOKS

A User’s Guide to the Millennium

By J. G. Ballard

This is a collection of essays and reviews by the author of such science fiction (for want of a better label) classics as The Drowned World, The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and Hello America. Many of the themes familiar to readers of Ballard’s novels, like California, Shanghai, television, technology, surrealism, cars, motorways and the atom bomb, are present.
Like Wilde, like Burroughs, Ballard has a great facility for paradox, inversion and subversion. He points a camera at a subject from a new and oblique angle, focuses, and invites us to look through the lens. Try this for size: ‘…needless to say, I think there should be more sex and violence on television, not less. Both are powerful catalysts of social change, at a time when change is desperately needed.’, or: ‘London needs to become as decadent as Weimar Berlin. Instead, it is merely a decadent Bournemouth.’ Unlike so many Sunday supplement columnists, you get the impression that his dissenting voice is not put on to be deliberately controversial or provocative or sensational, but that he actually believes what he writes.
He can spot a great phrase, and come up with a great phrase, sometimes in the same sentence. Colonel Kilgore’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, is ‘worthy of some Armalite-toting Robert Lowell’, Andy Warhol is ‘the Walt Disney of the amphetamine age’, while Henry Miller is ‘a working-class Proust’ (echoing Kenneth Tynan’s description of Joe Orton as ‘a welfare state Oscar Wilde’).

 

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The insights come flowing thick and fast. Writing in 1969, Ballard calls Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and William Burroughs ‘a trinity of the only loving men of genius’. Only Burroughs survives. Now into his 80s, he is a marvellous advertisement for the salutary effects of a debauched lifestyle. Ballard praises Freud’s influence on Dali, although these days Freud seems less of a liberator and more a determinist. He points out how feminism has evolved into a new Puritanism and deconstruction into a new orthodoxy, thus taking on the characteristics of the value systems they originally set out to destroy. He mentions the influence of Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, on Burroughs’ first great work, Naked Lunch, something I’ve always thought has been insufficiently explored. His special ire is reserved for ‘career novelists’, who dominate today’s fiction, ‘with the results one expects whenever careerists dominate an occupation.’
In an age when novels are going the way of poetry, and becoming an increasingly minority interest, being superseded by cinema, television, video and advertising, here is a writer who still really matters. There is enough meat there for the most ravenous of appetites. It is the sort of book that gives book reviewing a good name, and makes it a pleasure.

First published in the Irish Independent


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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