Two remaining (late period) Donald Barthelme novels I haven’t read.
The King is a first edition paperback (with an author photo on the whole back cover—very odd) illustrated by the wonderful Barry Moser.
IN THIS RIFF:
“A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)
“News from the Sun” (1981)
“Memories of the Space Age” (1982)
“Myths of the Near Future” (1982)
“Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982)
“The Object of the Attack” (1984)
“Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)
“The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)
“The Secret History of World War 3″ (1988)
“Love in a Colder Climate” (1989)
“The Enormous Space” (1989)
“The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989)
“War Fever” (1989)
1. ”News from the Sun” (1981) / ”Myths of the Near Future” (1982) / ”Memories of the Space Age” (1982)
Let me first confess how happy I am to be finished with this enormously enormous book (okay, not physically enormous on my Kindle, but still…). Let me also confess to dread at having to finish out these riffs (no, no one is forcing me, but still…). At this point, I feel like I could write my own Ballard story—a crazed astronaut here, a drained swimming pool there, a femme fatale, some psychotropic drugs, armchair psychology, a swamp, some birds (perhaps), a plane or two, time obsession, sex obsession, space obsession. Obsession obsession Anyway. Ballard arguably peaks in the early 1980s; everything after reads like a day-glow Keith Haringesque pop-approximation of his grittier seventies stuff—or (worse) scolding wrapped up in little morality plays.
But, like I said (wrote), Ballard is in his prime in the early 1980s, and “News,” “Myths,” and “Memories” are some of his finest stories (file these triplets in my quasi-fictional-but-c’mon-we-can-make-this-happen collection The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard)—they are also some of his most Ballardian, riffing on space-travel-as-cosmic-taboo, paranoid parables obsessed with time. A particularly Ballardian paragraph (from “Memories”):
He had almost ceased to breathe. Here, at the centre of the space grounds, he could feel time rapidly engorging itself. The infinite pasts and future of the forest had fused together. A long–tailed parakeet paused among the branches over his head, an electric emblem of itself more magnificent than a peacock. A jewelled snake hung from a bough, gathering to it all the embroidered skins it had once shed.
(Parenthetical aside: “Myths” and “Memories” are both set in Florida. Ballard’s depiction of Florida feels thoroughly inauthentic (I’m Floridian), but that inauthenticity also feels thoroughly appropriate).
2. ”A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)
Ballard constructs this little tale around a psychoanalytic reading of Cinderella:
The entire fairy tale of Cinderella was being enacted, perhaps unconsciously, by this deranged heiress. If she herself was Cinderella, Dr Valentina Gabor was the fairy godmother, and her magic wand the hypodermic syringe she waved about so spectacularly. The role of the pumpkin was played by the ‘sacred mushroom’, the hallucinogenic fungus from which psilocybin was extracted. Under its influence even an ancient laundry van would seem like a golden coach. And as for the ‘ball’, this of course was the whole psychedelic trip.
But who then was Prince Charming? As I arrived at the great mansion at the end of its drive it occurred to me that I might be unwittingly casting myself in the role, fulfilling a fantasy demanded by this unhappy girl. . . .
For all my resistance to that pseudo–science, it occurred to me that once again a psychoanalytic explanation made complete sense of these bizarre events and the fable of Cinderella that underpinned them. I walked up the staircase past the dismembered clock. Despite the fear–crazed assault on them, the erect hands still stood upright on the midnight hour – that time when the ball ended, when the courtships and frivolities of the party were over and the serious business of a real sexual relationship began. Fearful of that male erection, Cinderella always fled at midnight.
Ballard’s Freudian riff would be more interesting as an essay.
(The story also showcases some of his typical chauvinism: The psychiatrist is described as the “woman psychiatrist” — just as earlier a dentist is referred to as a “lady dentist,” etc. Straight through to the end of the collection. In the 1990s).
3. ”Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982) / ”The Enormous Space” (1989)
“Report” and “Space” both read like takes on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Soviet-era short story “Quadraturin” — both concern space, that corollary to time, and, just as Ballard repeatedly posits time as a matter of perspective, he treats space—area—the same way here. “Report” is a bit more satisfying than “Space,” which feels like a retread of so many of Ballard’s revenge stories—only with, uh, some comical cannibalism.
4. “The Object of the Attack” (1984) / “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)
“Attack” and “Questionnaire” are maybe the same story—only “Questionnaire” is essentially perfect, whereas “Attack” feels like a clumsy, heavy first draft (but only because “Questionnaire” exists—do you see what I mean by this?)
Both stories showcase Ballard’s syntheses of religion (messianic; apocalyptic) and assassination (political; media-saturated). While “Attack” employs a discursive-but-still-linear approach to the theme, “Answers to a Questionnaire” gives us a discontinuous but more engaging riff in the form of (uh) exactly what its title promises. First fifth:
2) Male (?)
3) do Terminal 3, London Airport, Heathrow.
6) Dr Barnardo’s Primary, Kingston–upon–Thames; HM Borstal, Send, Surrey; Brunel University Computer Sciences Department.
7) Floor cleaner, Mecca Amusement Arcades, Leicester Square.
8) If I can avoid it.
9) Systems Analyst, Sperry–Univac, 1979–83.
10) Manchester Crown Court, 1984.
11) Credit card and computer fraud.
13) Two years, HM Prison, Parkhurst.
14) Stockhausen, de Kooning, Jack Kerouac.
15) Whenever possible.
16) Twice a day.
17) NSU, Herpes, gonorrhoea.
19) My greatest ambition is to turn into a TV programme.
20) I first saw the deceased on 17 February 1986, in the chapel at London Airport. He was praying in the front pew.
5. “The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)
I should’ve wedged this passable but ultimately forgettable little tale in elsewhere. J.G. Ballard’s faux memoir of a faux astronaut. Pass.
6. “The Secret History of World War 3″ (1988)
“The Secret History of World War 3″ is Ballard’s “I told you so” sequel to one of his best stories (frankly a much better story), 1968′s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” In his unofficial sequel, Ballard imagines (the horror!) of a third Reagan term (post-Bush 1), in which the country is obsessed with the President’s (lack of) health:
…the nation’s TV screens became a scoreboard registering every detail of the President’s physical and mental functions. His brave, if tremulous, heartbeat drew its trace along the lower edge of the screen, while above it newscasters expanded on his daily physical routines, on the twenty–eight feet he had walked in the rose garden, the calorie count of his modest lunches, the results of his latest brain–scan, read–outs of his kidney, liver and lung function. In addition, there was a daunting sequence of personality and IQ tests, all designed to reassure the American public that the man at the helm of the free world was more than equal to the daunting tasks that faced him across the Oval Office desk.
The story concerns a man who—alone, always alone, despite his wife, I mean this is Ballard here, hero’s alone (and right, justified) in his paraonoia—a man who is the only person to remember the brief outbreak of WW3, wedged, as it is, among updates of Ronnie and Nancy’s bowel movements. The story is farcical but juvenile, and if it seems surprisingly sophomoric, it’s worth noting that “TSHofWW3″ echoes not just “Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but also one of Ballard’s earliest efforts, “Escapement” (1956), where a man sits on his couch in disbelief as his wife (stand-in for the whole world) fails to perceive what he perceives.
7. “Love in a Colder Climate” (1989) / “The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989) /“War Fever” (1989)
A trio of late period lectures blazoned in the day glow approximations that anyone who live in the late eighties will not-so-fondly recall. Ballard evokes the neon apocalyptic impulses of the day, reworking his familiar themes—reproduction, civilization, war (etc.). Our baroque surrealist’s strokes are broader, not as sharp, more magnified—more Haring than Delvaux. Michel Houellebecq will pick up JGB’s torch here (with arguably better results) a decade and a half later.
8. On the horizon:
A handful of stories of the nineties: Or: Ballard returns to the same well with diminishing returns.