J.G. Ballard: Style And Fantastical Themes 1956 to 1969

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J.G. Ballard wrote fantastical stories.  Some very good fantastical stories.  I have just read his “Complete Stories” up to and including 1969.  I hope to come back to the others soon, but as there is a five year gap until Ballard recommences writing short stories in 1974, 1969 seemed as good a stopping point as any to pause and reflect on his talent.

Ballard has a smooth writing style, his prose rich and flowing.  He is not normally flashy or extremely experimental style-wise, though there are exceptions.  He is not the type of writer who spikes his prose with a lot of chrome-fendered, tail-finned phrases… when Ballard describes a scene, it usually takes at least a full paragraph.  I’m not saying his writing is some overly complex, semi-colon-happy, pile-up of florid phrases (a la Henry James perhaps)…  I only mean that he takes his time.

Ballard uses the cadences of his sentences to create mood for the reader.  Unlike, say, a Harlan Ellison (who I recently wrote about here), who might spastically spit out intense micro-poems of four of five memorable words, Ballard slowly forges a mood-ring around a world.  He also enjoys throwing in an exotic vocabulary word from time to time without much context (like say, “diliquesce” or “palliasse“).

Ballard has several major themes or topics that he comes back to:  1) Time, specifically, what happens when Time is disturbed;  2) Clinical Psychology — used as a springboard for several stories; and  3) Music and sound — central to numerous tales.

Ballard’s stories, though to my recollection not sharing any characters, end-up feeling quite unified, almost interconnected.  Part of this is due to the similar tone that runs like a subterranean lake beneath the stories; part of it is the common style and themes; but also, Ballard often sets his stories in very similar settings, usually involving sand and sea and shore (a coastal area known as Vermilion Sands being a setting he uses more than once).  Furthermore, the same or similar fantastical inventions and other marvels pop-up in his different stories, such as:  computer programs that write poetry for you (you just enter the meter, rhyme, and assonance you want!), or pigments that paint impressionistic portraits and landscapes all by themselves.  One story even has ultrasonic music– you can’t hear it, but your neurons love it!

Altered Nature also is featured often in Ballard’s work:  musical plants, cloud-sculpting airplanes, sonic rock columns, time-altering flowers, animals with radiation-protecting, heavy-metal shells, flying sand-rays…  And even when he uses “normal” animals, such as seagulls and turtles, they take-on a menacing or depressing aspect.

As I said, sound is very important to Ballard, but it his visual descriptions that help to set his work apart.  I thought time and again while reading his stories that his work is ripe for a comic-book interpretation:  the mixture of mind-blowing concepts with surreal imagery would make for a great graphic novel (or ten).

I find it interesting that it is hardly ever a good thing for a man to meet a woman in Ballard’s stories.  His femmes, however, are not exactly fatales– they’re not particularly active in bringing down their male victims.  Ballard’s women are more like alluring Sirens, gently and forlornly inviting men to their doom.

Lastly Ballard is simultaneously one of the best writers ever at crafting the first few paragraphs of a story, and one of the worst at making satisfactory endings.  Ballard is the King Of Fizzle Endings.  Many of his stories start with great promise, wowing us with his perfect use of the English language, and flooring us with his imagery and creativity and his interesting characters– only to come to a not-quite-fulfilling ending.

In the next post, I’ll list what I think are the best J.G. Ballard stories.  I warn you, though:  to date, I have never reviewed another artist with so many good stories worth recommending.  This won’t be a top ten.  More like a Worthy Thirty.

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