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instructions ‘This author is beyond psychiatric help. DO NOT PUBLISH.‘ This is the man who saw an entire edition of The Atrocity Exhibition pulped by its American publishers. who feared a public outcry at its contents.
Yet, while other writers, not to mention pop stars and politicians. will compromise their styles to suit the changing times, Ballard, whose new volume ofshort stories, War Fever. has just been published, is adamant that it is the mainstream which has grown more ﬂexible, not he who has watered down his work. ‘A lot of my stuff—
Crash , Concrete island. High-Rise — clearly isn‘t science fiction. When I was beginning to write. when I was doing the books which obviously were science fiction. the mainstream was very. . . I don’t want to use hackneyed phrases. but it was dominated by the Hampstead novel. It was set in an unchanging world, whereas science fiction was far more dynamic. and responding to the changes that were taking place in the real world. Since then, however, so much ofthe mainstream has responded to the influence ofwriters such as Calvino, and to South American literature. And now there are people such as Borges and Burgess who, while regarded as mainstream. are often very close to SF.‘
War Fever could almost stand as an example of what Ballard is talking about. While some stories. such as ‘Memories of the Space Age‘ and “Report on an Unidentified Space Station‘ announce themselves as science fiction, others. were they not by a recognised SF author, would be unclassifiable in such narrow genre terms. Many of the stories, rather surprisingly, are also very funny. Lines such as ‘It‘s wonderful to meet you. I‘ve always wanted to know about . . . financial journalism’ may be more likely to induce a wry grin than a lusty guffaw, but then this is 1.6. Ballard, not Terry Pratchett.
‘I‘m glad you noticed the humour.‘ says Ballard. ‘There may be more ofit in War Fever. but I think it‘s always been an element of my fiction. People haven‘t noticed because, to put it mildly, my humour is rather deadpan. rather ironic. It‘s pretty well concealed from many readers. sadly.‘
Several of the stories in War Fever refer to some of his favourite mass icons. His old favourite Ronald Reagan makes a comeback, and the Princess of Wales turns up too. 'I believe in the body odours of Princess Di.‘ he has stated. Tell us, Jim, do you fancy the arse off her or what?
‘Did I say that? A touch of humour. you see. That piece was full ofjokes, actually. No.1 wouldn‘t say the Princess of Wales was an object of desire for me personally, or indeed for anyone. She‘s hardly a Rita Hayworth or an Elizabeth Taylor; Di is more the sort ofvirgin bride. There are certain character limitations that will prevent her attaining the status of Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy.’ '
The love-hate affair with Reagan is clearly of greater significance. Reminiscent, in a way. of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Nixon obsession. Ballard‘s fascination with the old ham was first brought to the public‘s attention in 1968, when, in what became a chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition, he penned a touching tribute, charmingly entitled ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’.
‘My interest in Reagan began when he was given a lot of airtime on British TV in the late olls.‘ Ballard explains. ‘It was very interesting watching him use his acting skills. He was pushing a very right-wing line. ruthless, aggressive. sneering about welfare spending, but he‘d
Reality imitates art. Bailard's car two weeks after publication oi his
learned a bit about body language, he was like a?
TV Buick salesman. He was the first politician to exploit the fact that nobody would listen to what he was saying, they‘d just watch his body language. So I thought here was a man to watch.‘
As Ballard explains, The Atrocity Exhibition marked a turning point in his work, a move away from the apocalyptic scenarios of The Drowned World and The Terminal Beach, and back, in a sense, to reality. ‘When I started writing The Atrocity Exhibition in the mid to late 605 the real world had become infiltrated by science fiction. We were living inside a huge SF novel, so one didn‘t need to write all that sort of allegorical SF. One could write naturalistic stuff and it would be SF almost without one meaning it to be. It was part ofthe air we breathed.‘
That novel and its immediate successor. Crash, remain favourites of Ballard‘s; with the exception of Empire ofthe Sun, they are probably his most widely read works. Crash, of course - and let‘s not talk about The Primitives— inspired ‘Warm Leatherette‘, perhaps best known in the Grace Jones version, but far superior in the original by The Normal. (Wheezing synthesiser chorus: Warm eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee / leatherette .s‘queeeeeeeeeeee /Join eeeeeeeeeeeeeee / the car-crash set.)
Crash, about a man who wishes to die, and simultaneously achieve sexual fulfilment, by crashing his car through the Heathrow flyover and landing on top of Elizabeth Taylor‘s, has been described by its author as a cautionary tale, yet many of the book‘s admirers seem to approach it as an indulgent fantasy. Ballard appears resigned to this wilful misinterpretation.
‘The same thinghappened with A Clockwork Orange — people will take from the book what they need. The whole thing is designed to provoke. not to incite — there‘s a very big difference between the two. It‘s a terrorist novel — like a hand-grenade thrown into a restaurant. It‘s not designed to incite the reader to get into his car and crash into an embankment. I haven‘t read the book since I wrote it, frankly — the last time I looked at it, it seemed too frightening.‘
Having got War Fever out of the way, Ballard is working on a sequel. as yet untitled, to Empire of the Sun. He tends to alternate volumes ofshort stories with novels, which explains why half his entire output, about ten volumes, is composed of short stories. ‘The short story does lend itself to my particular talents,‘ he says. ‘You can control all the elements that go into it. It‘s possible to write a perfect short story — many hundreds have been written — whereas it‘s impossible to write a perfect novel, the form is too loose and too large.‘
Unwilling to claim that any of his own have reached perfection, he nevertheless cites ‘The Voices ofTime‘, ‘The Terminal Beach‘, ‘The Subliminal Man‘, ‘Chronopolis‘ and ‘Concentration City‘ as his favourites overall, and ‘The Index‘ and ‘Memories ofthe Space Age‘ as the two he remembers most fondly from War Fever.
Whether writing short stories or novels, his daily routine remains the same: work hard all day, drink in the evening. His 60th birthday is unlikely to change things. ‘I think I‘ll run away and hide,‘ he says. ‘No, I dare say my girlfriend and I will go out and get drunk. Sadly, I do still drink a lot, though not as much as I used to. One day it will catch up on me.‘ One day, maybe. But not for a while yet, for, looking at his well-fed form. one realises that rarely has such a sick and depraved mind inhabited such a healthy body. War Fever is published by Collins at£ 12. 99.
5 The List 9— 22 November 1990