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Toby Litt
Toby Litt

Toby Litt is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck College, London. He has published three collections of stories and eight novels and also writes the comic Dead Boy Detectives.

Photo: Katie Cooke


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J.G.B. U.X.B.


A few years ago, in the Afterword to a collection of essays on  Ballard’s writing – produced after a two day conference on his work – I proposed a thought experiment.

 

‘We have,’ I said, ‘got J.G.Ballard wrong. The whole lot of us. J.G.Ballard wasn’t a writer at all. He was an obsessive, lifelong tunneler.

          ‘Beneath the gloriously shabby house in Shepperton there exists a vast network of steel-lined passages, taking the form of a pyramid. Through this three-dimensional maze, for that is what it is, only Ballard knows his way. Only Ballard knows his way because, extravagant as it may seem, Ballard is the only human being ever to have entered these tunnels.

          ‘The great pyramid-maze has been excavated single-handedly over the course of the past forty-seven years. Entered through a small padlocked trapdoor, located immediately beneath Ballard’s desk, it is the reason Ballard moved to Shepperton in the first place; it is the reason – of course, there must be a reason – why he has never moved.’

 

Ballard’s books, I suggested, were written solely to fund (and to provide cover for) his tunnel-building mania.

          But I have realised that this misexplanation for Ballard’s work will no longer do. The gloriously shabby house in Shepperton has been thoroughly gone over by estate agents, and no tunnel has been discovered.

          But the problem of us – the lot of us – getting Ballard wrong still remains. We are becoming just a little too chummy with a fixed image of Jim. We think we know him so well, just as he (at times) seemed to think he knew himself.

 

I’m thinking, for example, of his 1983 interview with Charles Shaar Murray:

          ‘I would guess that a large part of the furniture of my fiction was provided ready-made from that landscape: all those barren hotels and deserted beaches, empty apartment blocks... the whole reality of a kind of stage set from which the cast has exited, leaving one with very little idea of what the actual play is about. All of that comes straight from the landscape of wartime Shanghai, and remember that the war there started in ’37 when the Japanese invaded China and ringed the international settlement where I lived.’

 

I’m thinking, for example, of the disastrous final paragraph of his 1995 introduction to Crash.

          ‘Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.’

          I want to go back, and plead with him, even in the form of a cliché – ‘Never apologise, never explain.’

 

Ballard was once a horribly explosive force; now he too often is presented as a defused bomb – something for the children to climb on, outside the Imperial War Museum.

          And so I’d like to propose another thought experiment.

          I’d like to tell an alternative story.

          I’d like to put my ear against the bomb and listen closely, just to see whether it might not still be ticking.

It is February 1945. We are in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, eight miles southwest of the center of Shanghai, with a fourteen year-old boy named Jim. The concrete lowrises and close-packed khaki tents are Jim’s domain, and he moves through the humid air with all the sheen and directness of a guided missile.

          This Jim is an unusual boy – unusually mature for his age, given what he’s seen, but unusually naïve, given what’s been kept from him. Jim has been interned, along with his family, by the Japanese – and he is certainly aware that all across China the occupying Japanese forces are engaged in battles with the valiant soldiers of the Chinese Red Army.

          Jim often overhears the grown-ups talking about “Communism”, usually disparagingly. But one of them, a young man of 25 who – for the sake of protecting his identity – we shall call Phillip...

          ..but Philip speaks up for the bravery and idealism of the International anti-fascist struggle.

          Phillip is neither handsome nor charismatic; he wears a pair of steel-rimmed glasses, although one of the lenses is cracked. He stammers, when put under pressure by his right-wing elders. Cambridge educated, Phillip is a very polite young English gentleman.

          But Phillip, beneath this, is full of passionate political commitment. Jim has never seen this before, and it fascinates him. He starts to dog Phillip’s heels, to try to get Phillip talking, to ask Phillip about this thing “Communism”. And, once Phillip realises Jim is serious – isn’t just hoping to humiliate him – Phillip begins Jim’s political education.

 

At great risk to himself, Phillip has managed to preserve a copy of Lenin’s What is to be done? and one of The Communist Manifesto. He refuses to let Jim borrow them, but together – secretly – they go through each book, line by line.

          Jim will later attempt to paint over his lifelong conversion to Marxist-Leninism with a thick gloss of pro-Americanism – and in this he will unwittingly be aided by the American film director Steven Spielberg (“p-51, the Cadillac of the Skies!”).

 

However, following his early engagement with the absolute radicalism of Phillip, the rest of Jim’s life will be dedicated to exposing the violent, perverse and repressive nature of Western Capitalist Imperialism.

          Secretly, of course. It would not do for his ultimate motives to become known. Ballard must always keep his deadpan.

          The adult Jim will write numerous essays, novels and short stories, will give almost countless interviews, all in a tireless attempt to weaken the foundations of Western Capitalist Imperialism.

          Among the most notorious of these texts, and perhaps a step to far even for such a sophisticated subversive as Jim, will be ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race” – a text explicitly intended to satirize and expose to ridicule the sacred position of the President of the United States of America.

          In forwarding his secret mission, Jim will consort with other known anti-Imperialists – notably William S. Burroughs. But even to these intimates, he will give no hint of his true motivations, and make no mention of what he really learnt in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center in February 1945.

 

Thought experiment ends.

 

Ridiculous – of course. Utterly ridiculous. Old Jim Ballard of Shepperton a bloody Commie? a fifth columnist? – get orft. Jim was sound as a pound – voted Thatcher – loved the Yanks.

          But put your ear closer to the bomb – the bomb packed with material as explosive as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash...

          put your ear closer...

 

tick, tick, tick. tick...

 

 

This was written for the British Library event JG Ballard: Further Reflections, 23rd September 2011.

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