On The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s existential novel of sad little happinesses and horny ennui

I jumped enthusiastically into Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1961) last week. I read  his fourth novel Lancelot (1977) earlier this month. I loved Lancelot. I did not love The Moviegoer.

The Moviegoer is narrated by John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, who works as a stockbroker in a suburb outside of New Orleans. A Korean War vet, Binx has never quite lived up to the aristocratic mantle his family expected of him. He should’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, that sort of thing. Instead, Binx ambles amiably (and sometimes not-so amiably) through a vague existence, searching for “the wonder.”

Binx is semi-determined not to be “distracted from the wonder,” an attendance to the possibility of spiritual transcendence. In Walker’s postwar American South, commercial culture and modern manners slowly suffocate spirit. Binx is a would-be philosopher attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to find a dram of wonder in a desacralized world. He fools around with his secretaries, reads novels, checks in on his earthy mother, and has drawn out philosophical conversations with the aunt who raised him after his father’s early death. His aunt too sees the fall of her world, her South—its long drawn out decline into the Big Modern New.

Binx is also deeply intimate with his aunt’s stepdaughter, his stepcousin Kate. (Note the Gothic tinge here, a semi-incestuous plot in this novel full of semi-themes and semi-plots.) Modern malaise is the theme of The Moviegoer, and Kate suffers her malaise far more intensely than Binx or anyone else. Semi-suicidal and prone to bouts of mania, she finds an anchor in Binx. But Binx is a loose anchor, a semi-anchor, a little anchor:

It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

The Moviegoer is full of sad little happinesses: bourbon in paper cups, dips in the Gulf of Mexico, moviegoing, natch. Binx’s post-aristocratic malaise is a privileged, horny malaise. A half-century after The Moviegoer’s publication, Binx’s ennui reads as blinkered, solipsistic, reactionary even. There’s a casual, even temperate sexism and racism to his worldview, which I suppose we might expect out of a midcentury novel by a white male. Binx seems unable or unwilling to regard the humanity of other humans as equal to his own deeply felt humanity. But he’s gentle (and even ironically genteel) in his outlook.

That outlook: the ennui in The Moviegoer is mostly polite and mostly well-mannered. And horny. Unlike the manic, dark, zany vitriol of his later novel Lancelot, the humor of Percy’s debut is lightly ironic, droll, even a touch whimsical at times. It’s almost lethargic. But I suppose a certain lethargy is to be expected from a novel that takes malaise as a theme.

Still, there are moments that puncture the malaise in The Moviegoer. In an earlyish section of the novel, Binx riffs on the classic This I Believe radio program (presumably the one hosted by Edward R. Murrow). Binx pokes gentle polite loving fun at the program in general, before proffering his own short essay:

“Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,” it began, and ended, “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

And yet just one line later Binx vacillates back, the conscience of tradition echoing in his grandfather’s phrase:

I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called “a smart-alecky stunt” and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Percy’s—excuse me Binx’s—anger immediately collapses—or maybe reconstitutes into—respect for for tradition and a resigned faithful commitment to listening.

But anger eventually boils over, even if Percy is quick to remove the pot from the burner. Very late in the novel, Binx delivers the closest thing in The Moviegoer to a rant:

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies —my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

The passage reads false to me, from the corny “dark pilgrimage” (Oh no! Your thirties!) to the aristocratic substitution merde to the complaint against humanism to the ultimate had-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party pose that, Yeah, come come nuclear bomb. And does poor little rich boy Binx really want to fall prey to desire?

Ah! Prey to desire! Existential dread! A call to human feeling, an anxiety of the individual caught between the wonder and the flesh, the spirit and all that horny ennui. For a novel set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, The Moviegoer is light on fun. Percy, via Binx, repeatedly insists that this is all serious business, even as the light irony drolly undercuts the novel’s core message. Binx comes off as a party guest eager to get along gently, afraid of the potential menace under his surface, but also incapable of accepting the menace under everyone else’s surface.

I wanted more menace. The Moviegoer, like its antecedent, Camus’s The Stranger, seems pointed toward howls of execration—but even if Binx might wish to howl at the absurd, he can’t.

From its opening paragraphs, The Moviegoer’s tone reminded me strongly of Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger. I loved The Stranger when I was sixteen, appreciated it when I reread it at twenty for a course on existential literature, and have had the good sense to let it alone since. Those howls of execration at the end have always stuck with me. But I know I’ve changed over the past two decades, and I revere my memories of the book. I’d hate to find fault. 

The preceding paragraph is perhaps a rough draft of the following statement: I think I would’ve loved The Moviegoer if I had read it when I was much younger. This isn’t a knock on Percy’s prose, the novel’s voice, or the loose, lilting plot. I appreciated all those elements. The problem is me. The problem is that I already read The Stranger so long ago. And also so long ago—The Plague and The Fall and Nausea. And Waiting for Godot, and Invisible Man. And Hemingway and Salinger and Heller’s Catch-22, which The Moviegoer beat to win the 1962 National Book Award.

And then a few weeks ago, as a significantly older guy, I read Percy’s later novel, Lancelot.

Published in the late 1970s, Lancelot reads like a postmodern Gothic. It’s a parody of Southern gentility and movie-making, a riff on cultural incest, a howling execration of the century preceding it. It’s a ranting monologue worthy of Thomas Bernhard, more Notes from Underground than The Stranger, rough, mean, wild. It’s possible to read Lancelot as the weird dark cursed sequel to The Moviegoer, its sinister postmodern zaniness exploding the former novel’s mannered modernism.

If I was ultimately disappointed in The Moviegoer, it’s likely because I read Lancelot first. I wanted more of that dark weird flavor, that mad ranting fervor. The Moviegoer has its moments, and likely has more that I missed. I found the last line unexpectedly moving: “It is impossible to say.” (Nevermind the referent of that “It.” Suffice to say that we have found ourselves at Ash Wednesday.) But then Percy—or maybe his editors?—appended a goddamned epilogue to the whole affair, almost ruining the novel.

(It’s possible that I’ve fundamentally misread The Moviegoer, that I’ve missed something profound in it, that I’ve read in earnest what was meant in irony, that I’ve skated over wells of depth that seemed otherwise shallow.)

Anyway. Should I read another Percy novel? I’ll admit that Love in the Ruins (1971) seems far more interesting than the famous novel, this one, the one I’m ostensibly “reviewing.” Given the strength of Lancelot, I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

On Fran Ross’s postmodern picaresque novel Oreo

img_5795

Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo is an overlooked masterpiece of postmodern literature, a delicious satire of the contemporary world that riffs on race, identity, patriarchy, and so much more. Oreo is a pollyglossic picaresque, a metatextual maze of language games, raps and skits, dinner menus and vaudeville routines. Oreo’s rush of language is exuberant, a joyful metatextual howl that made me laugh out loud. Its 212 pages galloped by, leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Oreo is Ross’s only novel. It was met with a handful of confused reviews upon its release and then summarily forgotten until 2000, when Northeastern University Press reissued the novel with an introduction by UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen(New Directions offered a wider release with a 2015 reissue, including Mullen’s introduction as an afterword.)

Mullen gives a succinct summary of Oreo in the opening sentence of her 2002 essay “‘Apple Pie with Oreo Crust’: Fran Ross’s Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel“:

In Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus’ journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father.

Mullen goes on to describe Oreo as a novel that “explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans.”

Oreo’s ludic heterogeneity may have accounted for its near-immediate obscurity. Ross’s novel celebrates hybridization and riffs–both in earnestness and irony—on Western tropes and themes that many writers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s specifically rejected.

Indeed, Oreo still feels ahead of its time, or out of its time, as novelist Danzy Senna repeatedly notes in her introduction to the New Directions reissueSenna points out that “Oreo resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today,” and writes that Ross’s novel “feels more in line stylistically, aesthetically, with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntzoke Shange.”

In his review of Oreo, novelist Marlon James also posits Ross’s place with the postmodernists, suggesting that “maybe Ross is closer in spirit to the writers in the 70s who managed to make this patchwork sell,” before wryly noting, “Of course they were all white men: Vonnegut, Barth, Pynchon, and so on.”

Of course they were all white men. And perhaps this is why Oreo languished out of print so long. Was it erasure? Neglect? Institutional racism and sexism in publishing and literary criticism? Or just literal ignorance?

In any case, Ross belongs on the same postmodern shelf with Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth, Reed, and Coover. Oreo is a carnivalesque, multilingual explosion of the slash we might put between high and low. It’s a metatextual novel that plays zanily with the plasticity of its own form. Like Coover, Elkin, and Barthelme, Ross’s writing captures the spirit of mass media; Oreo is forever satirizing commercials, television, radio, film (and capitalism in general).

Ross plays with the page as well, employing quizzes, menus, and charts into the text, like this one, from the novel’s third page:

Screenshot 2020-07-24 at 3.14.00 PM

Oreo won me over with the postmodern paragraph that followed this chart, which I’ll share in full:

 A word about weather

There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.

What happens in Oreo? Well, it’s a picaresque, sure, but it goes beyond, as Ralph Ellison put it, being “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.” (Although there are plenty of damned things happening, sheerly or otherwise, after each other.)

Oreo is a mock-epic, a satirical quest for the titular Oreo to discover the “secret of her birth,” using clues left by her white Jewish father who, like her mother, has departed. All sorts of stuff happens along the way–run ins with rude store clerks, attempted muggings, rhyming little people with a psychopathic son camping in the park, a short voice acting career, a soiree with a “rothschild of rich people,” a witchy stepmother, and a memorable duel with a pimp. (And more, more, more.)

Throughout it all, Oreo shines as a cartoon superhero, brave, impervious, adaptable, and full of wit—as well as WIT (Oreo’s self-invented “system of self- defense [called] the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” In “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as [Oreo could] engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.)

Indeed, as Oreo’s uncle declares, “She sure got womb, that little mother…She is a ball buster and a half,” underscoring the novel’s feminist themes as well as its plasticity of language. Here “womb” becomes a substitution for “balls,” a symbol of male potency busted in the next sentence. This ironic inversion might serve as a synecdoche for Oreo’s entire quest to find her father, a mocking rejoinder to patriarchy. As Oreo puts it, quite literally: “I am going to find that motherfucker.”

Find that motherfucker she does and—well, I won’t spoil any more. Instead, I implore you to check out Oreo, especially if you’re a fan of all those (relatively) famous postmodernist American novels of the late twentieth century. I wish someone had told me to read Oreo ages ago, but I’m thankful I read it now, and I look forward to reading it again. Very highly recommended.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. Reading through these “reviews” has made me want to revisit Morrison’s debut, which I haven’t read in a dozen years (tellingly, many if not most of the reviewers fail to realize that the novel was published in 1970, not in 2000 when it was featured in Oprah Winfrey’s book clubI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


TRASH

f-words

b-words

Its sooooooo dirty!

unrelentingly grim

filled with sexuality

Call me a simpleton, but

politically correct posture

I felt dirty after reading it

over-the-top racial themes

Just another…(never mind)

horrible with no hope at all

full of cruel unlikable character

decorate her work with profanity

Did OPRAH actually read this drivel?

wallowing in the garbage of humanity

the gross aspects of sex and femine hygene

Granted I am a guy, a white guy at that, but

This author must be a good friend of Oprah’s

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Toms Cabin.

I like to read something that doesn’t pollute my mind

Sadly Toni Morrison has kept to her very low standards

write a letter to the school board to have them remove it

Evreythig revolved over sex and a lot of other horrible things

I read the book in one day hoping that it would eventually get better.

Good book packed intelligibly in a huge box with 2 32oz bottles of shampoo.

Half the time I didn’t even know what character they were writing about until I was well into the chapter.

my very well read and well travelled daughter said she was shocked by these stories

The author was very uneducated in her writing. She did not make since

I am an educated caucasian woman with a masters degree

we all live in the gutter and mix with the dregs of society

It just made me feel guilty just cos I’d been born white

I live in a town that has many African Americans

the appalling Common Core Curriculum

Common Core exemplar reading list

As highly educated as we both are,

random trashing of Dostoevsky

sexually explicit perversion

a very disturbing feeling

Common Core reading list

common core curriculum

common core standards

new CCSS(common core)

Common Core program

at times perverse

nothing but hurt

Oprah’s choices

“social justice.”

not literature

garbage

Phooey!

porn

VILE

 

The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

jgb_complete_ss4003111

I. “Manhole 69” (1957)

II. “Chronopolis” (1960)

III.  “The Voices of Time” (1960)

IV. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)

V. “Billennium” (1961)

VI. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

VII. “The Subliminal Man” (1963)

VIII. “End-Game” (1963)

IX. “Time of Passage” (1964)

X. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

XI. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)

XII. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)

XIII. “The Beach Murders” (1966)

XIV.  “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

XV. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

XVI. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976)

XVII. “The Index” (1977)

XVIII. “The Dead Time” (1977)

XIX. “News from the Sun” (1981)

XX. “Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

XXI. “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

XXII. “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

XXIII. “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

At 1200 pages and just under 100 stories, The Complete Short Stories is frankly too complete—but I read them all anyway. The list above is my suggestion for a volume I’d call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Each selection on the list is linked to a riff I wrote; in several cases, links to the full text of the story can be found at the riff.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (which is great, by the way)I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


The Invisible man and his wife, the invisible woman, had their second child. Just like their first child, the second one isn’t much to look at.

If ever there was a book that should be banned, I think this might be one

 child fight club, drinking whiskey in whorehouses and incest 

snatch the rosy infants from wombs of expectant mothers

Someone has to stand up to this kind of gross stuff! 

all manner of utterly confusing events take stage

he is killing me with his “beautiful” prose

Mom I don’t think I should be reading this

paragraphs ( Yes, paragraphs!)

I am not cultured enough

Oprah might like it doh.

convoluted language

the longest sentences 

I do not understand.

spit on her nipples

to much symbolism

I am not a prude

urge to ramble

pornographic

Noble goals

Okay

rated X

My son

My child

My teenager

my grandson

BAD BAD BOOK.

glaringly obvious

impossibly surreal

NEVER read this book

We discarded the book

the lead character is naive 

this book will destroy life itself

I am compelled to rip it, burn it

Terrible reading. I had to turn it off.

 a long winded speech about nothing

this book needs relegated to the 1950’s

the ending, which envolves a coal mine

Really pretty sick stuff here. Good luck.

 my 17 year old daughter for AP English

on my son’s required reading list for school

my son to read for his high school honors English class

required reading for my son’s high school English class

A very dark read that shows how nothing’s changed in 50 years

Toni Morrison tends to do the same thing in some of her novels.

If you are expecting something along the lines of H.G. Wells’ classic, you will be sorely disappointed.

although I saw that Saul Bellow had praised it, I found the promise of Invisible Man intriguing nonetheless

This movie was NOT worth 19.99 nothing special, different or unique. Should have just watched Sleeping With The Enemy” over again. Wasted 19.99.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eleventh Riff: The Nineties)

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

The eighties

IN THIS RIFF:

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

“A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” (1992)

“Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992)

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

“The Dying Fall” (1996)

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

By the 1990s Ballard had written essentially the same stories over and over—with diminishing returns. Some of the weakness in the later entries in the Complete Short Stories can be attributed to Ballard’s prescience. The world caught up to him at some point, blunting his satire into something goofier, more cartoonish, but also sharpening the reactionary streak that always glowed under the surface of his writing. At his peak, Ballard used his stories to provoke readers into looking at their culture in a new way, and the best of those stories still retain a futurist power. However, many of the late period stories blazon their moral outrage in a wearisome didactic streak.

1990’s “Dream Cargoes” is paint-by-numbers Ballard: Themes of time, sleep, mutation, ecological disaster, birds, etc. The plot anticipates one of Ballard’s weaker novels, Rushing to Paradise (1994), a day-glo nightmare about misguided attempts to steward the forces of nature. And like Rushing to Paradise, the prose here is weak—Ballard relies on the stock phrases that litter his earliest stories.

“The Message from Mars” (1992) / “Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992) / “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” anticipates public disinterest in astronomy (and science in general), the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, and China’s emerging dominance as a world power with space flight capability. So there you go. (It also posits the horror of a President Quayle!). Ballard sends a group of astronauts on a Mars mission, refuses to share their findings with us, and then leaves them, once they land, in their space shuttle, where they live on for decades, silent, incommunicado, alienated from humanity in their self-imposed exile. Ballard’s cynicism is balanced by his refusal to overstate any kind of moral here—the story succeeds in its evocation of mystery.

“Report from an Obscure Planet” is another riff on millennial anxieties, written in the perspective of a “we” condemning the human race for its shortsighted, disastrous treatment of the planet. Ballard doesn’t seem to keen on the future wonders promised by computers:

Driven by the need for a more lifelike replica of the scenes of carnage that most entertained them, the people of this unhappy world had invented an advanced and apparently interiorised version of their television screens, a virtual replica of reality in which they could act out their most deviant fantasies. These three–dimensional simulations were generated by their computers, and had reached a stage of development in the last years of the millennium in which the imitation of reality was more convincing than the original. It may even have become the new reality to the extent that their cities and highways, their fellow citizens and, ultimately, themselves seemed mere illusions by comparison with the electronically generated amusement park where they preferred to play. Here they could assume any identity, create and fulfill any desire, and explore the most deviant dreams.  

While “Report from an Obscure Planet” uses a didactic narrator and a heavy hand to telegraph its message, its companion piece “A Guide to Virtual Death” is far more fun, wicked, and shockingly accurate (if wildly hyperbolic). Sure, yes, okay—another list from Ballard, and okay, yes, sure—I tend to be keen on his lists (“The Index,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”)—but they also tend to be his strongest pieces. As usual with his list-stories, Ballard feels obligated to begin with a note:

For reasons amply documented elsewhere, intelligent life on earth became extinct in the closing hours of the 20th Century. Among the clues left to us, the following schedule of a day’s television programmes transmitted to an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere on December 23, 1999, offers its own intriguing insight into the origins of the disaster.

6.00 am Porno–Disco. Wake yourself up with his–and–her hard–core sex images played to a disco beat.

7.00 Weather Report. Today’s expected micro–climates in the city’s hotel atriums, shopping malls and office complexes. Hilton International promises an afternoon snow–shower as a Christmas appetiser.

7.15 News Round–up. What our news–makers have planned for you. Maybe a small war, a synthetic earthquake or a famine–zone! charity tie–in.

7.45 Breakfast Time. Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.

Brief but Essential. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

“The Dying Fall” (1996) / “The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

The American edition of Complete Stories is more complete than the British volume, including two extra stories. “The Dying Fall” (read it here if you like) is an unfortunate last entry, a weak note in a grand tome. It’s not bad; it’s simply not good, yet another revenge tale with a bad wife, etc. It feels like a frame for Ballard to riff on architecture and psychoanalysis.

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” is much stronger (you can read it here), although it was also composed at his peak and republished (“rediscovered”) after his death. The final lines would have made a fitting end for the entire collection:

When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel, and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station, he assembled a small armory of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.

But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on his lawn and on those of his former neighbors. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.

Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

On the horizon:

I am done! Sort of. One more post—I’ll revisit these riffs and select the tales that I would include in a collection I would call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Tenth Riff: The Eighties)

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

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)

“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).

 “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.

Etc.

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).

“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.

  1. “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:

1) Yes.

2) Male (?)

3) do Terminal 3, London Airport, Heathrow.

4) Twenty–seven.

5) Unknown.

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.

12) Guilty.

13) Two years, HM Prison, Parkhurst.

14) Stockhausen, de Kooning, Jack Kerouac.

15) Whenever possible.

16) Twice a day.

17) NSU, Herpes, gonorrhoea.

18) Husbands.

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.

Essential, natch.

“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.

“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 rightjustified) 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.

“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.

On the horizon:

A handful of stories of the nineties: Or: Ballard returns to the same well with diminishing returns.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eighth Riff: Closing Out the Sixties)

jgb_complete_ss40031

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

IN THIS RIFF:

“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967)

“The Recognition” (1967)

“The Cloud–Sculptors of Coral D” (1967)

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

“The Dead Astronaut” (1968)

“The Comsat Angels” (1968)

“The Killing Ground” (1969)

“A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

“Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967) / “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) / “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)

Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories, collected and published together (under the title Vermilion Sands in 1971), are generally my least favorite selections in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The stories, composed over a decade, share a unified tone and a consistent (first-person) point of view to match their unified setting, and that setting is interesting enough—Ballardian enough—but each story is essentially just a delivery mechanism for a Cool Idea that Ballard has about art.

In “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”, Ballard’s Cool Idea is a light-responsive painting technique:

Like all paintings produced at Vermilion Sands at that time, it would not actually need the exercise of the painter’s hand. Once the pigments had been selected, the photosensitive paint would produce an image of whatever still life or landscape it was exposed to. Although a lengthy process, requiring an exposure of at least four or five days, it had the immense advantage that there was no need for the subject’s continuous presence. Given a few hours each day, the photosensitive pigments would anneal themselves into the contours of a likeness.

This discontinuity was responsible for the entire charm and magic of these paintings. Instead of a mere photographic replica, the movements of the sitter produced a series of multiple projections, perhaps with the analytic forms of cubism, or, less severely, a pleasant impressionistic blurring.

The idea is interesting in and of itself, calling back to the central conceit of another VS story, “Studio 5, The Stars.” In that tale, poetry is the automated product of programmed machines. The concept of programmed art is fascinating, and clearly Ballard’s fiction tracks a predictive curve, but like most Vermilion Sands stories, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” is clumsily executed pulp fiction. “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” is no different (the Cool Idea is cloud-sculpting, which allows Ballard to riff on one of his central motifs, airplanes). “Say Goodbye to the Wind” features living, responsive clothing. It also features another stereotypical Ballardian (pseudo)ingénue (the man really had a difficult time coming up with complex female characters). However, with its notes on “the teenage cult” and its obsession with plastic surgery, the story points to the more compelling territory Ballard was exploring.

“The Recognition” (1967)

A doomed circus, another (pseudo)ingénue, another dwarf, another morality fable, another stab at magical realism—far less successful than “The Drowned Giant” though.

“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968)

This is one you might as well just read: I mean, an attempt to describe it here will fail. But I’ll fail anyway.

“Reagan” was first published when the former actor and then-Governor of California was positioned as a write-in candidate for the ’68 election—the Gipper was the conservative alternative to Nixon. Written in the style of an academic psychology paper, the piece isn’t so much satire as something else entirely. I’m not sure exactly what that “something else” is, but it’s probably best signaled in Ballard’s own prose:

Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth–parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear–exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child–victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self–induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.

According to a number of sources, including Ballard himself, the story was disseminated at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. VICE reports:

. . . a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard’s Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, “Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey,” and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.

“Reagan” is one of only three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition collected in The Complete Stories. It also clearly belongs in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, an ideal collection that does not yet exist.

“The Dead Astronaut”

Betrayal, unfaithful wives, the fall-out of the space race against the backdrop of the Cold War, paranoia, radiation, etc.

“The Comsat Angels”

Ballard’s best stories, like “The Index,” “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Beach Murders,” or “Answers to a Questionnaire” all succeed because their form is indivisible from their content—the idea that Ballard delivers is inseparable from the method of delivery. Most of Ballard’s stories are beholden to genre conventions though, and while Ballard’s treatment of these conventions are often excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent), against the backdrop of his best stuff, the conventional exercises are always a little disappointing, or at least frustrating. Often clunky and heavy-handed, his stories for sci-fi mags are often the worst offenders.

However, when Ballard works through the conventions of detective fiction, he usually has stronger results. Edgar Allan Poe is surely Ballard’s foremost literary ancestor, a comparison that finds illustration in “The Comsat Angels,” a detective piece with a nimble streak of sci-fi running through it for flavor. Cloning, conspiracy, and paranoia done right. Great stuff.

“The Killing Ground” (1969) / “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)

These stories are basically thought exercises where Ballard takes on the Vietnam War and its simultaneous culture war. “The Killing Ground” foregrounds the Vietnam War, but still displaces it, extrapolating a future where “Thirty years after the original conflict in south–east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam,” with Imperial America dominating the globe with its war machine. (Thank goodness nothing like that really happened!).  “A Place and a Time to Die” is more oblique, a tale of fear of invading otherness. “A Place and a Time to Die” could resonate just as strongly today in contemporary America, with its exurbs and gated communities and Stand Your Ground laws.

On the horizon:

Some of Ballard’s best, including “The Index” and another (oblique) Vietnam story, “Theatre of War.” I’ll also riff on Ballard’s pseudo-but-not-so-pseudo-autobiographical story, “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Seventh Riff: 1966)

jgb_complete_ss40031

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

IN THIS RIFF:

“The Beach Murders'”(1966)

“The Day of Forever” (1966)

“The Impossible Man” (1966)

“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

“The Beach Murders” (1966)

Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.

With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:

Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.

“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

“The Day of Forever” (1966)

It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.

“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.

When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:

In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.

Delvaux’s The Echo

 “The Impossible Man” (1966)

The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)

“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962’s “The Garden of Time.”

“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)

Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967’s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)

Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.

Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:

Oswald was the starter.

From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.

Kennedy got off to a bad start.

There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.

The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.

If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zone series), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).

“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.

Should go without saying: Essential.

Hear an audio version here.

 On the horizon:

I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Sixth Riff: 1963-1964)

jgb_complete_ss40031

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

IN THIS RIFF:

“The Reptile Enclosure” (1963)

“A Question of Re-Entry” (1963)

“The Time Tombs” (1963)

“Now Wakes the Sea” (1963)

“The Venus Hunters” (1963)

“End-Game” (1963)

“Minus One” (1963)

“The Sudden Afternoon” (1963)

“The Screen Game” (1963)

“Time of Passage” (1964)

“Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964)

“The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

“The Terminal Beach” (1964)

“The Illuminated Man” (1964)

“The Delta at Sunset” (1964)

“The Drowned Giant” (1964)

“The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (1964)

“The Volcano Dances” (1964)

“The Reptile Enclosure” (1963) / “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963) / “The Time Tombs” (1963) / “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) / “The Venus Hunters” (1963) / “Minus One” (1963) / “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) / “The Illuminated Man” (1964) / “The Delta at Sunset” (1964) / “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” /”The Volcano Dances” (1964)

There are 98 stories in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. That’s a lot of stories. Maybe too many. Too many for me to write about in full, anyway. I’ve lumped these stories together because they are somewhat unremarkable: Ballard does his Ballardian thing way better elsewhere. Several of these stories feel like sketches (or leftovers) from Ballard’s early novels like The Drowned WorldThe Burning World, and The Crystal World. Themes of time, memory, art, and nature abound here, usually glommed on to simple adventure narratives or sci-fi pulp treadthroughs. Jungles, watches, crystals, structures, beaches. Misanthropy, paranoia, nagging wives, misunderstood heroes. Man apart from nature, but beholden to nature. Etc. The worst moments of these stories—and we can find these moments all through early Ballard, to be fair—suffer from a bad case of White Man’s Burden doubled up with a shot of misogyny. I’ve written it before in these posts, but the most disappointing aspect of early Ballard is our would-be futurist’s inability to transcend the patriarchal ideology of the post-war era. So now let’s move to the good stuff.

“End-Game” (1963)

I first read “End-Game” when I was sixteen or seventeen, and it’s always stuck with me. It’s the story of a former “party member” who’s been imprisoned under nebulous circumstances—only his prison isn’t that bad—a nice little villa, comfortable, with books and a chess set. He even has a housekeeper. Unfortunately, the housekeeper is also his executioner, and the date and method of the execution is forever withheld from him:

This ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non–existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed, was preserved in his present situation at the execution villa.

The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.

Ballard directly invokes Kafka, whose tale “Before the Law” comes to mind here (not to mention The Trial and The Castle); “End-Game” also feels like Ballard’s take on 1984. It’s a great little tale, and I think it helps to prove that Ballard is at his best when he sticks to a confined, limited cast and setting. Much of the force of “End-Game” comes from Ballard pitting his prisoner/protagonist against the protagonist’s mental conception of his guard/executioner. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

“The Sudden Afternoon” (1963) / “Time of Passage” (1964)

In “The Sudden Afternoon” and “Time of Passage,” Ballard explores how time and place—context, I suppose—constitute identity. The former story is a tale of metempsychosis with a troubling take on Indian spirituality, wherein a doctor—an Indian, of course—transplants his psyche and his wife’s psyche into the bodies of another couple (his wife is dying of a terminal disease). Ballard’s own wife died a year after the story was first published (I’m reminded of Poe here, whose wife Virginia died after the publication of “The Raven”). “The Sudden Afternoon” isn’t very good, but structurally we see Ballard beginning to employ something approaching the cut-ups/fragments he’ll move to in the next decade.

“Time of Passage” is essentially a rewrite of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s also basically a rewrite of Ballard’s own 1961 tale “Mr. F Is Mr. F” — only this time, Ballard dispenses with abject-horror-for-maternal-body in lieu of a fable-like exploration of what a life in reverse might actually look like. A lovely story. Stick it in The Essentials.

“The Screen Game” (1963)

Another Vermilion Sands story. More insanity. Another femme fatale. An attempt at the story of Orpheus, perhaps. I would have lumped it in with the stories in point 1, but I wanted to clarify: The Vermilion Sands stories are the worst.

1

“The Lost Leonardo” (1964)

This is an excellent little detective tale with mystical-magic undertones. I’m a sucker for any story of art theft, too. We all know Dan Brown ripped off Umberto Eco, but maybe Eco ripped off Ballard? Who cares. Lovely stuff. Ballard is excellent at the detective story; Poe is one of his clearest predecessors, but like Poe, he’s more famous for other stuff. Too bad. Let’s call it Essential.

“The Terminal Beach” (1964)

1964’s “The Terminal Beach” is such a big break through for Ballard in terms of formal elements and structuring that it probably deserves its own post, but I’ll jab at it here anyway. Up until now, Ballard’s stories have been notable almost entirely for their ideas—his prose has improved some, but ultimately, the pulp fiction he’s writing for magazine publication constrains him to a pedestrian rhetoric that simply can’t match how far out his concepts are. With “The Terminal Beach,” Ballard finally approaches a narrative structure—fractured, polyglossic, shifting through interiors to exteriors, breaking through different forms—that can match the themes of his tale. The story–clearly an Essential—points to the finest of Ballard’s future work. You can read it here in two parts, but here’s a taste that I think stands alone as a microfiction:

The Fly

(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)

DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand

TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.

TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.

TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing

YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.

TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?

YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’

TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see

YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way

TRAVEN: But, Doctor

YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!

TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.

(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)

“The Drowned Giant” (1964)

Another Essential, this puzzling fable readily recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Ballard rarely handles archetypes so directly as he does here. Even if the story’s theme seems almost too-plain—we lose the miracle, we cast down the old gods, we deny the sublime, etc.—its construction and telling are wonderfully achieved.

The lower jaw, typically, found its way to the museum of natural history. The remainder of the skull has disappeared, but is probably still lurking in the waste grounds or private gardens of the city – quite recently, while sailing down the river, I noticed two ribs of the giant forming a decorative arch in a waterside garden, possibly confused with the jaw–bones of a whale. A large square of tanned and tattooed skin, the size of an indian blanket, forms a backcloth to the dolls and masks in a novelty shop near the amusement park, and I have no doubt that elsewhere in the city, in the hotels or golf clubs, the mummified nose or ears of the giant hang from the wall above a fireplace. As for the immense pizzle, this ends its days in the freak museum of a circus which travels up and down the north–west. This monumental apparatus, stunning in its proportions and sometime potency, occupies a complete booth to itself. The irony is that it is wrongly identified as that of a whale, and indeed most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.

On the horizon:

Ballard plays with fragmentation again in “The Beach Murders” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” — and we finally get to his stories of the late sixties.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Fifth Riff: “The Subliminal Man”)

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

they-live-billboard

The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

 

Ratner’s Star | On Uncut Gems

uncut_gems_0174939

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran this review in January, 2020 and is posting it again today as Uncut Gems is now streaming in the U.S. on Netflix.]

Frenetic, chaotic, and unceasingly energetic, the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems plays out like a two-hour panic attack. Uncut Gems opens in the turbulent aftermath of a mining accident. An Ethiopian mine worker is borne up by his frenzied fellows, his leg a raw mangled bloody mess. The Ethiopian workers’ voices mix into the Chinese mine operators’ attempts to calm the situation. This initial cacophony signals the babble and buzz that will continue through the rest of the film, and the camera’s lingering on the destroyed leg signals the violent cost that underwrites the material splendor at the heart of Uncut Gems.

Two Ethiopian miners take a gamble and use the chaos as an opportunity to sneak away, back into the mine to make off with a rare black opal, the titular uncut gem. One of the miners peers into the gem, and the camera follows his gaze. We are taken into a kaleidoscope of shifting colors as Daniel Lopatin’s beautiful synth score kicks in. The camera swirls through the gem and, in an opening sequence that rivals Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, eventually enters the colon of our hero, Howard Ratner.

A title card informs us it is two years later. It is 2012 in New York City and Howard Ratner is getting a colonoscopy. There is probably some metaphor here—the aesthetic journey from the gem’s dazzle of color to the interior glistening-chewing-gum-pink flesh of Howard’s colon—but I’ll avoid remarking further upon it.

Here is the film’s premise: Howard owns and runs a jewelry store in the Diamond District. His associate Demany brings rappers and athletes to him to buy unique, high-end pieces. He is flush with cash all the time, but is also severely indebted to a loan shark named Arno (among other folks). However, his debts don’t stop him from continuing to place bets. He is also in the middle of an affair with one of his employees, Julia, whom he keeps in his Manhattan apartment, barely-concealed from his wife and children in Long Island.

uncut-garnett-sandler-1576518581

Three things happen on the day we meet Howard: Arno’s henchmen come to prove good on their threats of violence towards him if he does not pay back his loans; Demany brings Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett to Howard’s shop; and Howard receives the titular uncut black opal, which he plans to sell at auction for at least a million dollars. Seeking to impress Kevin Garnett (“KG!”), the jeweler shows off his opal, Ratner’s star. In one of the film’s most extraordinary visual sequences, KG gazes into the opal and undergoes a seismic epiphany. He demands to buy the gem, but Howard refuses—he needs the money from the auction to get clean of debt. However, Howard allows KG to borrow the gem for the night, taking Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral for its return. KG is convinced that the gem will lead to his success in that night’s Eastern Conference Semifinals game against the Philadelphia ’76ers (it does).

From this early point in the film Howard goes on to make a series of increasingly-nerve-wracking decisions against the backdrop of his loan shark’s enforcers’ increasingly-violent promises of retribution. I will not spoil any more of the plot—my “premise” paragraph seems too long as it is—I’ll simply say that there were moments that I (and other audience members) audibly gasped (in shock, in exasperation, in frustrated disbelief) at Howard’s choices.

Uncut Gems never really lets up. There are a few moments of respite as well as moments of comedy, but they mostly serve to suspend the anxiety the film creates, not release it. Uncut Gems is a horror film posing as a crime thriller, an anxiety film equal to Aronofsky’s mother! or Polanski’s Repulsion. The Safdies conjure a hectic, bustling world in Uncut Gems, a world of babble and noise and beauty and ugliness. Characters crowd the frames, their voices colliding in a way reminiscent of the films of Altman, Cassavetes, or early Scorsese.

Under and through the noise of voices in Uncut Gems floats Daniel Lopatin’s wonderful score. Waves of synths swing between between evocations of romance and horror; menacing swells and whimsical melodies, simultaneously busy and calming, cascade over the film. Lopatin, better known as the electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, is a highlight of this film.

Another highlight of Uncut Gems is Darius Khondji’s cinematography. The saturated shots are reminiscent of his work on Wong Kar-Wai’s under-rated 2007 film My Blueberry Nights (as well as his work the same year on Haneke’s equally-anxiety-producing black comedy/horror Funny Games). Khondji conjures a candy-colored Manhattan, lush and opulent. The painterly frames are seductive but also dangerous, recalling the neon-noir of films by Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn.

And of course the acting. I have spent close to 800 words not pointing out that this is an Adam Sandler film. Sandler inhabits his role as Howard Ratner with a vibrating energy that is hard to capture in words. It’s hard to imagine any one else playing the part. Sandler’s Howard is a degenerate gambler, addicted to the thrills of his own confidence games, a trickster blowing up his life in real time. He’s in love with his own chaos, and it’s hard not to root for him, even as he destroys everything around him.

Kevin Garnett is fantastic as himself. His eyes are especially expressive, and his screen presence is utterly natural. His final scene with Sandler’s Howard is a highlight of the film, as he seems to deliver any sane person’s remarks to the gambling addict. Lakieth Stanfield is also excellent in the film as Demany, Howard’s procurer. He both balances and matches Howard’s energetic chaos, even if he can’t ground his erstwhile partner. Eric Bogosian brings ballast to the role of Arno, Howard’s loan shark, as does Judd Hirsch, playing his father-in-law. Idina Menzel plays Howard’s (soon-to-be-ex-) wife with an unflinching meanness that the character deserves. Newcomer Julia Fox is a standout as Julia, Howard’s mistress. She enables Howard, but in some ways she’s also the hero of the film.

Uncut Gems is a very good film and I was very relieved when it was over. The Safdie brothers have created something that sustains a feeling that many of us take SSRIs to avoid. “Wow, I really hated that,” the young woman next to me remarked to her date as the closing credits began. I can understand that reaction. Uncut Gems will not be entertaining for most folks, but I thought it was great. Its initial evocations of worldly violence as the cost of worldly pleasures are answered in its final moments. Catch it in the theater if you can.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Fourth Riff: Stories of 1962)

jgb_complete_ss400

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

IN THIS RIFF:

Nine stories published in 1962:

“The Insane Ones”

“The Garden of Time”

“The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista”

“Thirteen to Centaurus”

“Passport to Eternity”

“The Cage of Sand”

“The Watch Towers”

“The Singing Statues”

“Man on the 99th Floor”

“The Insane Ones” (1962)

Psychology, and particularly subliminal psychology, remained a major theme throughout Ballard’s writing career. “The Insane Ones” is a thought-experiment that examines what might happen if libertarianism were taken to its most extreme:

The Mental Freedom legislation enacted ten years earlier by the ultraconservative UW government had banned the profession outright and enshrined the individual’s freedom to be insane if he wanted to, provided he paid the full civil consequences for any infringements of the law. That was the catch, the hidden object of the MF laws. What had begun as a popular reaction against ‘subliminal living’ and the uncontrolled extension of techniques of mass manipulation for political and economic ends had quickly developed into a systematic attack on the psychological sciences. Overpermissive courts of law with their condoning of delinquency, pseudo–enlightened penal reformers, ‘Victims of society’, the psychologist and his patient all came under fierce attack. Discharging their self–hate and anxiety onto a convenient scapegoat, the new rulers, and the great majority electing them, outlawed all forms of psychic control, from the innocent market survey to lobotomy. The mentally ill were on their own, spared pity and consideration, made to pay to the hilt for their failings. The sacred cow of the community was the psychotic, free to wander where he wanted, drooling on the doorsteps, sleeping on sidewalks, and woe betide anyone who tried to help him.

“The Insane Ones” isn’t a particularly good story—as is the case with many of the tales in The Complete Stories, it’s mostly an excuse to tease out a speculative notion—but its conceit of a lack of adequate health care set against the backdrop of reactionary politics seems particularly germane today. 

“The Garden of Time” (1962)

“The Garden of Time” is an oddity in Ballard’s oeuvre. Most of his short stories take cues from Edgar Allan Poe, but “The Garden of Time,” a direct allegory, is pure-Hawthorne territory, a dark fairy tale with fantasy tropes unusual for Ballard. Count Axel and his darling wife live in a perfect Edenic space that they maintain by picking flowers that “freeze” time. At the periphery, a mechanized mob approaches:

At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganized tide. Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks, others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes, a few trudged on alone, but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun.

I’m not sure how to read the tale—it seems that Ballard identifies the horde, the mob, as a dumb, dim force of history, a consumer society that will destroy the last vestiges of High Culture embodied by the graceful Count and his wife, the aristocrats who understand Truth and Beauty and Art &c. I think there’s a streak of conservatism here, a tendency that we might not immediately think of when we think of Ballard the futurist.

 “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962)

Another Vermilion Sands story, “Stellavista” takes on architecture. This is basically a haunted house story; the Ballardian trick here is the psychotropic house, dwellings that echo “every shift of mood and position of the occupants.” Young couple buys house, house is haunted, etc. The conceit is interesting, but again, Ballard’s not particularly inclined to write it in anything outside of a standard pulp fiction (or doesn’t seem to know how to yet).

Ballard’s treatment of his female characters is what I find most interesting here. As always, they seem to be divided into just a few classes: The wife, an unimaginative nag; the mysterious (and impossible to understand) ingenue; the mad, abandoned old woman (shades of Miss Havisham); and the abject, consuming Villain-Woman. Ballard often combines the last three types, but they are always set in opposition to the housewife. More on this in a moment.

“Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962)

“Thirteen to Centaurus” belongs in what I’ve been calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, a collection of the best stuff here. Each Ballard story is essentially a trick or a thought experiment—the tale is just a delivery system, a frame. Ballard here employs a metaframe; sure, the story is still composed in the tropes and language of pulp fiction, but Ballard shows signs of breaking out. In some ways, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is a rewrite of “Manhole 69” (which I also suggested is Essential). I haven’t described the plot and won’t—I think the story is probably better read without preview or explication.

“Passport to Eternity” (1962)

“Passport to Eternity” highlights Ballard’s greatest imaginative failure. This is a guy who can conceive of every kind of fantasy trip—extraterrestrial adventures, private-war-as-vacation, space safari (the occasion for the story here is a list of surreal vacations; the story would read much, much better as just that list). Yes, Ballard can conceive of any kind of future, except one where a woman is something other than a house wife:

For several centuries now the managerial and technocratic elite had been so preoccupied with the work of government that they relied on the Templars of Aphrodite not merely to guard their wives from any marauding suitors but also to keep them amused and contented. By definition, of course, their relationship was platonic, a pleasant revival of the old chivalrous ideals…

Even if Ballard is poking ironic fun here (and I don’t think that’s the case), his framing is aggressively chauvinistic; not only does the “managerial and technocratic elite” appear to exclude women, the underlying anxiety of cuckoldry manifests in a social structure that must manage (and contain) women’s passions and sexualities. There’s something aggressively misogynistic here, a streak that finds its twin in Ballard’s abjectification of women elsewhere in the stories (I wrote above that he only conceives women as house wives—not quite true—they can also be consuming monsters in the Ballardverse).

“The Cage of Sand” (1962)

Astronauts. Ecology. Etc. Pass.

“The Watch-Towers” (1962)

“The Watch Towers” is basically an extended riff on how churches institutionalize power and regulate behavior. Ballard’s trick here is to elide or omit any language that would directly evoke religion or spirituality though. The story also gets its power comes from its bare simplicity, its lack of ornamentation—one can sense Ballard’s restraint here. The story would likely be more successful stripped even further—something closer to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which it echoes. There are also shades here of a particularly English brand of hauntology—The Prisoner and The Wicker Man come to mind.

 “The Singing Statues” (1962)

“The Singing Statues” feels like a rewrite of several of Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories. I suppose collected together in their own volume, the Vermilion Sands tales might read like a novel-in-stories, a work through of central themes, images, and ideas—but dispersed in The Collected Stories they get swallowed. They read like repetitions. Stale.

“Man on the 99th Floor” (1962)

Ballard handles subliminal suggestion much better in the next tale, “The Subliminal Man.” So I’ll take a pass on this one in anticipation of one of Ballard’s best.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Second Riff: Stories of 1960)

jgb_complete_ss400 PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

IN THIS RIFF:

Stories published in 1960:

“The Sound-Sweep”

“Zone of Terror”

“Chronopolis”

“The Voices of Time”

“The Last World of Mr. Goddard”

“The Sound-Sweep” (1960)

Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.

As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:

Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.

To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).

“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:

But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.

“Zone of Terror” (1960)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, each with much stronger results).

chronopolis

3. “Chronopolis” (1960)

“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:

‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’

But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will  explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

“The Voices of Time” (1960)

“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:

…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …

… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…

I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.

Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

“The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)

More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.

On the horizon:

Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (First Riff: Introductions + Stories 1956-1959)

jgb_complete_ss400

IN THIS RIFF:

Introductions

Stories published between 1956 and 1959:

“Prima Belladonna”

“Escapement”

“The Concentration City”

“Venus Smiles”

“Manhole 69”

“Track 12”

“The Waiting Grounds”

“Now: Zero”

Introduction

I first read J.G. Ballard in high school. I found his work, somehow, after reading Burgess, Burroughs, and Vonnegut. I devoured many of his novels over the next few years, as well as several short story collections. One of these, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard was particularly important to me. That collection—which I loaned to a friend who thought enough of it to never give it back—offers a concise overview of Ballard’s development as a writer, from the pulp sci-fi of his earliest days (“Chronopolis”) to his later evocations of ecological disaster and dystopia (“Billenium,” “The Terminal Beach”) to his more experimental work from The Atrocity Exhibition, stories that pointed toward one of his most famous books, Crash.

I hadn’t returned to Ballard since reading Super-Cannes when it came out a decade ago; at the time I recall being disappointed in the novel and filing it away with William Gibson’s recent efforts, which I found dull.

I’d been reading Donald Barthelme’s wonderful and strange short stories, and, rereading “Glass Mountain,” a story composed in a list, I remembered Ballard’s brilliant story “Answers to a Questionnaire” (from 1990’s War Fever). I tracked the story down in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, read it, read a few more at random, and then decided to start at the beginning.

I’ll be reading and riffing on all 98 stories in the collection over the next few months—giving myself breaks for other stuff, of course (although Ballard’s stuff, especially the early stuff is really easy to read).

Another introduction

Martin Amis writes the introduction to the 2009 edition and of course manages to bring up his father Kingsley almost immediately. He talks about the times he (Martin) got to spend with Ballard. He points out that Ballard possessed “a revealingly weak ear for dialogue.” He suggests that Ballard could have been the love child of Saki and Jorge Luis Borges. He describes Ballard as “somehow uniquely unique.” He reminds me of why I usually skip introductions.

And Ballard’s introduction, from the 2001 first edition of the book

He situates his hero, his contemporary, and his forbear in the first paragraph:

Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.

He also tells us,

Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.

I agree, except for the adverb there.

Did Ballard’s sensibilities gel with the sci-fi fans who read the pulp mags his early stories were published in?

I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred.

In the final lines of his introduction he describes his oeuvre and addresses criticisms that there’s so much damn analog tech in his stuff:

Vermilion Sands isn’t set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present – a description that fits the stories in this book and almost everything else I have written. But oh for a steam-powered computer and a wind-driven television set. Now, there’s an idea for a short story.

Vermilion Sands, the strange resort town where Ballard set over a half-dozen of his tales, is the setting of the first and fourth tales in the collection.

“Prima Belladonna” (1956) / “Venus Smiles” (1957)

Ballard already had a distinct setting in mind to play out his future-nowisms. That early stories “Prima Belladonna” and “Venus Smiles” are both in set in Vermilion Sands is maybe the most interesting thing about them. “Prima Belladonna” is never better than its first line:

I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.

Ballard has the good sense to leave that cryptic reference to “the Recess” unexplained, or at least underexplained throughout the story—exposition is usually the worst aspect of pulp sci-fi. Still, the story is hardly one of his best. I’m guessing Roger Corman must have read it though, as his film Little Shop of Horrors (1960) seems to owe it a certain debt.

vermilion_sands

“Venus Smiles” is also set in Vermilion Sands, and it also takes music—sound—as its major motif (several of Ballard’s early stories do). Ballard strives to do too much in the story—he wants to criticize public attitudes about art, sculpture, music, etc., and also name drop John Cage to bolster his avant garde bona fides. Both stories drag, weighed down by Ballard’s clunky similes and bad dialogue (dear lord I’m agreeing with Amis here!). What’s most frustrating is knowing that Ballard is just a decade away from finding a rhetorical style to match the content of his ideas.

“Escapement” (1956)

The story of a man who realizes he is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same actions, “Escapement” is particularly frustrating. The stakes are incredibly low—the domestic scene of a married couple watching TV on a couch begs for darker treatment—and the reader figures out what’s going on way before the narrator. Time is clearly a major motif for Ballard, but his earliest published treatment of it is not especially inspiring. (I realize writing this what an ass I sound like: look, I know this is early work, pulp fiction—my frustration is that I want it to be better—or at least more abbreviated.

“The Concentration City” (1957)

“The Concentration City” finally sees Ballard in stronger territory, here exploring one of his favorite dystopic tropes—overpopulation—via one of his favorite conceits—the intrepid and intellectually curious young man. “The Concentration City” also showcases some early experimental touches in its opening paragraphs:

Noon talk on Millionth Street:

‘Sorry, these are the West Millions. You want 9775335th East.’

‘Dollar five a cubic foot? Sell!’

‘Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal. Carry on south from there and you’ll find it between 568th Avenue and 422nd Street.’

‘There’s a cave–in down at KEN County! Fifty blocks by twenty by thirty levels.’

‘Listen to this – “PYROMANIACS STAGE MASS BREAKOUT! FIRE POLICE CORDON BAY COUNTY!”

‘It’s a beautiful counter. Detects up to .005 per cent monoxide. Cost me three hundred dollars.’

‘Have you seen those new intercity sleepers? They take only ten minutes to go up 3,000 levels!’

‘Ninety cents a foot? Buy!’

The story follows up on these early notes, using the initially-estranging material to tell the story of a seemingly-infinite city; our young hero of course wants to bust out. Ballard also gives us an early prototype of what will be one of his major conventions: the green-zone/danger-zone split:

‘City Authority are starting to seal it off,’ the man told him. ‘Huge blocks. It’s the only thing they can do. What happens to the people inside I hate to think.’ He chewed on a sandwich. ‘Strange, but there are a lot of these black areas. You don’t hear about them, but they’re growing. Starts in a back street in some ordinary dollar neighbourhood; a bottleneck in the sewage disposal system, not enough ash cans, and before you know it a million cubic miles have gone back to jungle. They try a relief scheme, pump in a little cyanide, and then – brick it up. Once they do that they’re closed for good.’

No exit!

“Manhole 69” (1957)

Despite its unfortunate name, “Manhole 69” is perfect early Ballard. The story follows three men in an experimental group who have undergone a surgery that eliminates their ability to sleep. The story is precise and concise; Ballard seems comfortable here (“comfortable” is not a very Ballardian word, but hey…)—he sets up his experiment and then lets his principals carry it out. The story’s heavy Jungian vibe resurfaces a few years later in Ballard’s early novel The Drowned World

“Manhole 69” is the first of the 98 stories here I’d put in a collection I’ll tentatively call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

“Track 12” (1958)

While “Track 12” is hardly perfect, its concision and focus do it many favors. Again, we find Ballard playing with sound—particularly something called “microsonics”:

Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart – how did you put it? – a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones. Now there you have a perfect illustration of how microsonics can reveal the distinction between the animal and plant kingdoms.

As is often the case, Ballard has an idea that fascinates him (“microsonics,” here) and simply constructs a story to deliver that idea. Or, rather, rips off a story—and Ballard has the good sense to steal from the best. “Track 12” is a fairly straightforward Edgar Allan Poe ripoff, a revenge tale recalling “The Cask of Amontillado,” and if the reader seems to guess where everything is going before the victim, well, it works here.

“The Waiting Grounds” (1959)

Ballard is better at inner space than outer space. “The Waiting Grounds” seems like a bait and switch, or at least I imagine many meat and potatoes SF fans might have felt that way. Ballard has his hero head to some distant planet, only to spend most of that trip in his own mind. And oh what a trip! The story’s central set piece anticipates the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as Ballard sends his hero through “deep time”:

Deep Time: 10,000,000,000 mega–years. The ideation–field has now swallowed the cosmos, substituted its own dynamic, its own spatial and temporal dimensions. All primary time and energy fields have been engulfed. Seeking the final extension of itself within its own bounds the mantle has reduced its time period to an almost infinitesimal 0.00000000… n of its previous interval. Time has virtually ceased to exist, the ideation–field is nearly stationary, infinitely slow eddies of sentience undulating outward across its mantles.

The frame Ballard builds to deliver his idea is clunky, but I suppose in those days one could make a sort of living writing stories for magazines, and maybe more words meant more moolah. Again, this story points to the Jungian themes that Ballard would explore in greater depth in The Drowned World.

“Now: Zero” (1959)

Here is the first paragraph of “Now: Zero,” the last story of Ballard’s to be published in the 1950s:

You ask: how did I discover this insane and fantastic power? Like Dr Faust, was it bestowed upon me by the Devil himself, in exchange for the deed to my soul? Did I, perhaps, acquire it with some strange talismanic object – idol’s eyepiece or monkey’s paw – unearthed in an ancient chest or bequeathed by a dying mariner? Or, again, did I stumble upon it myself while researching into the obscenities of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Black Mass, suddenly perceiving its full horror and magnitude through clouds of sulphurous smoke and incense?

No doubt, dear reader, you immediately detect Edgar Allan Poe all over this piece, and you’re not wrong. The story is mostly interesting as a style exercise—namely, Ballard doing Poe—but its cheesiness and predictability drowns out any humor. But again, these are the complete short stories—not just the perfect exercises.

On the horizon:

The early 1960s! “Chronopolis”! “The Overloaded Man”! “Billenium”! You are encouraged to play along.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice. To be clear, I’m a big Pynchon fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


Wow.

drivel

stilted dialogue

knock yourself out

every detail is described

This was my first Pynchon

my second stab at Pynchon

I so rarely abandon anything

shouldn’t have been published

that ridiculous post-modern credo

pick up James Ellroy. He is a true artist

like a novelization of the Big Lebowski

false as a jet contrail in an 1880’s western movie

I had to read whole pages twice or even three times

practically nothing that occurs is important to move the plot along

he smokes a joint and stumbles across a clue that leads him to the next chapter

does a disservice to liberals by portraying them as a bunch of negative stereotypes

This book makes the classic NAKED LUNCH by Burroughs completely coherent

No one in our entire bookclub could finish it and we are all avid readers

NEVER BUY BOOKS THAT CRITICS RAVE ABOUT, THEY ALWAYS SUCK!!!

It glorifies hippies and condemns the right-wing Man

one of the most useless novels I have ever read

This is my first experience with Pynchon

this may make a decent movie

nothing redeeming about it

no entertainment value

difficult and obscure

no meter

Uugghh.

As a Scandinavian

It is a bad detective story

Pynchon wants this to be a film.

When Amazon recommends a book, I take notice.

I have never read a book by Thomas Pynchon before

I am beginning to think the “professionals” just like crap.

The Author is the type that critics love to refer to as edgy

Pynchon is probably the most overrated American writer.

It is as if this author was stoned the entire time he wrote this.

numerous drug and hallucination references and insinuations

story telling with drugs and hallucinations are better left to movies or television

Definitively a good movie was made based on an awful book by an overrated writer.

Pynchon maybe in top 10 most overrated writers in the last 100 yrs.

Let me start by saying that I have never read Pynchon before.

I had to re-read several pages and passages multiple times

Thomas Pynchon is supposed to be a great author

Remember those dumb “Family Circus” cartoons

the author appears to be a wanna be stoner

I am in the process of writing my own novel

Where is Kerouac when you need him?

The whole novel is one long inside joke.

I’m in a book club with 10 guys….

nonsensical plot

Studpid

Blech.

meandering piece of slop

What’s not cool is this book.

an Elmore Leonard Want-a-be

I could write a hippie chick way better.

The professor also said he hated reading it.

Do not recommend to anyone under the age of 65

This is my first encounter with a book about drug usage

The seventies were a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The volumes I have read , sadly, occupy a large footprint on the planet.

Doc, the protagonist, is in a drug-induced haze for the majority of the novel

My extremities are tingling with the feeling that Socrates had after drinking a cup of hemlock.

ARPAnet, forerunner of the internet, is discussed as if everyone knows about it

written by a cute undergraduate student working under Pynchon’s wing

characters who make brief appearances

bad acid trips and a caricature of a plot

the ramblings of an intoxicated person

I really wanted to like this book

I am an avid fiction reader.

This was my first Pynchon

Some call it “stoner noir.”

you are the sober one

strangled by Pynchon

unsexy sex scenes

fiction is useless

H are to follow

little cat feet

“Dreams like machines in the head” | A review of NYRB’s new Anna Kavan anthology

machines_in_the_head_1024x1024

Machines in the Head, new from NYRB, compiles twenty-three Anna Kavan stories that were originally published between 1940 and 1975, as well as one previously unpublished story. The stories here, culled from five previous collections, show not so much a stylistic evolution over three decades of Kavan’s writing as they do a writer pushing herself into ever stranger territory. And while Kavan’s experimental forms shift from story to story, her modes of radical ambiguity, rattling paranoia, and sinister menace course through the collection, giving it a strange coherence.

Machines in the Head is arranged chronologically, with the first nine stories coming from Asylum Piece (1940). These stories announce themes and images that repeat throughout Kavan’s writing and this new NYRB collection: sleep, dreams, ice, sun (and the lack of sun), prisons, asylums, hospitals, lovers, friends (and the absence of friends), enemies, persecutors, mysterious patrons, strange summonses from abstract authorities, sentencing and judgment, windows, walls, doors.

“Going Up in the World” is a miniature study of cold anxiety in which the unnamed protagonist suffers alienation from the “Patrons” who seem to abandon her. “The Enemy” is five paragraphs of Kafkaesque persecution and paranoia. In “The Summons,” an ugly waiter ruins a meal with an old friend, and our narrator is soon taken away by an ambiguous authority, only to return to dinner to have her friend urge her to go back to the authority on her own volition. The nightmare-dream logic here is part and parcel of Kavan’s style, as is the the conclusion of “The Summons”:

…I began to wonder, as I have wondered ever since, whether the good opinion of anybody in the whole world is worth all that I have had to suffer and must still go on suffering — for how long; oh, for how long?

Pretty much every tale in Machines in the Head ends in existential suffering, inconclusive menace, our outright doom. The narrator of “The Summons” tells us at one point that “a feeling of dread slowly distilled itself in my veins,” a line that could fit neatly into any of the stories here.

Suffering and despair continue in “At Night,” where the narrator’s bedroom is a “jailer,” her bed her “coffin.” The story’s surrealist touches capture the all-too-real horror of insomnia. “Machines in the Head” continues the sleep motif, showing us the terror of that tyrant, the alarm clock. Kavan conveys the awful moment many of us experience upon awakening too early:

Roused in this brutal fashion, I jump up just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door.

“Asylum Piece II,” however, suggests that there is trouble in dream:

I had a friend, a lover. Or did I dream it? So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.

In “The End in Sight,” our narrator, having “received the official notification of my sentences,” experiences time’s passing “like shadows, like dreams,” again suggesting that dreams and sleep are not the solution to anxiety and unease. “The End in Sight” concludes with our narrator still in the grips of anxiety, waiting to be carted away by invisible and unnamed forces.

Reverie, 1948 by Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977)

Asylum Piece was the first collection that Kavan published under the name “Anna Kavan.” She previously had written under her legal name, Helen Ferguson, but took “Anna Kavan” (from a character in her 1930 novel Let Me Alone) first as a pen name and then later as her new personal identity. It’s hard not to read Kavan’s fiction as largely semi-autobiographical, while also recognizing that much of that biography was the result of imaginative invention and re-invention. Asylums and psych wards show up in her stories so much because she spent quite a lot of time in such places. Kavan suffered depression and attempted suicide several times in her life. Alienation and loneliness permeate her work: her characters can never seem to truly know each other, to truly communicate. Kavan was essentially alienated from her parents; her father abandoned the family (and later committed suicide), and she spent most of her youth at boarding schools. Both of her marriages failed before the publication of Asylum Piece, a fact that underscores her stories’ curves toward despair. She did have romantic relationships later, doomed as they were, and also was extremely close to Dr. Karl Bluth, the German psychiatrist who prescribed her heroin from the time that he met her until he died in 1964.

Iterations of Bluth—sympathetic doctors—-start to appear in some of Kavan’s stories stories starting with I Am Lazarus (1945). The stories here are longer, richer, and more focused than those in Asylum Piece (but still strange, strange, strange). The nightmare of the Blitz hangs over the tales, which are populated with doctors, nurses, and soldiers.

“Palace of Sleep” — the first third-person piece in the anthology is set in a mental hospital. “Palace” picks up the night shift motif of Asylum Piece, focusing on an unnamed patient undergoing treatment for narcosis. “The Blackout” continues the narcoleptic motif. In this story—one of the strongest in the collection—a soldier who had blacked out for five days talks to psychologist. The soldier parcels out bits of a tragic life story, redeemed in part by the aunt who eventually raises him after he’s orphaned. There’s an oedipal undercurrent to “The Blackout,” which circles around a profound horror without actually naming the crime at the heart of the tale. “Face of My People” is another psych ward piece, with a tone and development worthy of J.G. Ballard. (Ballard was a big fan of Kavan’s fiction.)

abercrombie-0498
The Queen, 1954 by Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977)

“The Gannets” is another very strong piece. In five visceral paragraphs, Kavan condenses the horror of World War II into a strange allegory of terrible violence. “The Gannets” contains one of the strongest images in the whole collection. It’s shocking, really, when it happens—so much of her writing runs on unspecified dread and slow-motion menace, that when she does deploy concrete horror, the effect is devastating. I won’t spoil that devastation by quoting the image, but I will share the story’s final paragraph:

How did all this atrocious cruelty ever get into the world, that’s what I often wonder. No one created it, no one invoked it, and no saint, no genius, no dictator, no millionaire, no, not God’s son himself, is able to drive it out.

“Our City” is a longish Kafkaesque exercise that feels similar to the early short stories “Airing a Grievance” and “The Summons,” but with more absurd humor and more control. Kavan elides details that would allow us to identify the titular city as London during the Blitz. Instead of realism, we get something closer to a psychological portrait of a place under the most extreme duress. “Our City” is a slow-motion panic attack, a fever dream that sprawls outward but refuses to resolve.

Machines in the Head includes just three stories from A Bright Green Field (1957), but all are excellent. “A Bright Green Field” is the surreal story of a visitor (to where?!) who witnesses “prone half-naked human bodies, spreadeagled on the glistening bright green wall of grass.” The bodies are bound “by an arrangement of ropes and pulleys [with] semi-circular implements of some sort fastened to their hands.” The bizarre image has an even more bizarre explanation: These people are employed in the Sisyphean task of mowing the grass in this fashion. Why? Well, look, are you expecting a rational answer?–

That poison-green had to be fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost. There was no other defence against the mad proliferation of grass blades, no other alternative to grass, blood-bloated, grown viciously strong, poisonous and vindictive, a virulent plague that would smother everything, everywhere, until grass and only grass covered the face of the globe

If “A Bright Green Field” is allegorical—and it really, really doesn’t have to be—perhaps it’s an ironic allegory of humanity’s perverse relationship to ecology.

The plot of “Ice Storm” is scant: a woman travels from New York City to Connecticut to visit some friends and decide whether or not to leave America. It turns out that she doesn’t really like her friends that much, and she’s ultimately unable to make a decision, “Because there were far too many decisions to make about everything and no permanent set of values by which to decide.” With its touches of realism, “Ice Storm” feels anchored in autobiography. (The title and much of the imagery suggest that “Ice Storm” might be the germ–or a germ—of Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice.) Kavan interposes newspaper headlines, seemingly at random, throughout the story, a device that might have come off as a gimmick; instead the headlines serve to highlight the narrator’s alienation from reality.

“All Saints” is the most avant-garde exercise in the collection. The story—story is probably not the right word—the story seems to drift between two or three consciousnesses that riff on decadent decline and imminent death. I’ve read it several times and still can’t puzzle it out, which is why I like it so much, I suppose. (I put a big star on the margin next to the line, “the end of every project comes down to the rat.”)

The stories from Julia and the Bazooka (published in 1970, two years after Kavan’s death) are the first to deal openly and frankly with drug addiction. “The Old Address” is a sad first-person number steeped in agoraphobia. Our addict-narrator, discharged from the clinic, ventures into an anonymous but teeming world which she murders in her imagination in an abject and revolting sequence:

Huge black clots, gouts, of whale blood shoot high in the air, then splash down in the mounting flood, soaking the nearest pedestrians. Everybody is slipping and slithering, wading in blood. It’s over their ankles. Now it’s up to their knees. All along the street, children start screaming, licking blood off their chins, tasting it on their tongues just before they drown.

The poison-blood-drowning-murder vision continues for several more paragraphs, before the narrator capitulates to her own panic, realizes that there’s “only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered,” hops in a taxi, and tells “the man to drive to the old address.” Another sad ending.

1971.447.1_1.tif
White Cat, 1938 by Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977)

The magical realism of “A Visit” initially suggests the possibility of happy ending. Kavan gives us a rare tropical locale, where our narrator receives an erotic night visitant, gorgeous a leopard. She longs to meet the leopard again, but never sees him until he returns in a new form:

One day while I was on the shore, I saw, out to sea, a young man coming towards the land, standing upright on the crest of a a huge breaker, his red cloak blowing out in the wind, and a string of pelicans solemnly flapping in line behind him.

She glimpses the youth and leopard together just one more time, and lives the rest of her life in disappointed waiting. Sometimes the pair enter her dreams though, which only weighs her down with “the obscure bitterness of a loss” — which she blames on herself. Kavan doles out a magical epiphany, only to hobble it down to a kernel of disappointment, another machine in the head.

“Fog” tells the story of a woman high on heroin, driving her car at a dangerous speed through foggy streets. She tells us how peaceful she feels, then adds: “The feeling was injected, of course. She ends up committing a terrible crime on her joyride, and is soon brought in by the police. As the fog of the heroin wears off, the story skirts a bipolar line reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” In the end, the narrator wishes to nullify her consciousness—to “stay deeply asleep and be no more than a hole in space.”

lf
The Ivory Tower, 1945 by Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977)

The hero of “Julia and the Bazooka” is unstuck in time. Kavan essentially tells a version of her own life story here, with its sad childhood, failed marriages, and heroin addiction. (The titular “bazooka” is a syringe.) In some paragraphs, Julia is a young child; in others, she is a new bride, or a young woman traveling the world, or meeting the doctor who advises her to stick with heroin — “Without it she could not lead a normal existence, her life would be a shambles, but with its support she is conscientious and energetic, intelligent, friendly.” In other paragraphs, Julia is dead. Indeed, like Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Julia and the Bazooka” shows us a consciousness unraveling towards death.

The final two stories in Machine in the Head, while as strange and disconcerting as anything in the collection, are notable for one major difference: both have happy endings. “Five More Days to Countdown” (the only story here from 1975’s posthumous My Soul in China) is a gleeful picaresque exploding in energy. The story centers around an experimental school run by a genius named Esmerelda and her hapless husband. Pretty soon the school is in the grips of a youth rebellion that turns into outright violent revolution—and all five days before Christmas:

A sack of mail, directed to Santa, was delivered later. Sifting through through the contents, through the requests for definitive trendy kaftans, avant-garde night caps, exciting fab fun-fur hoods, switched-on gear of all kinds, I found the more basic items. Junior practical fighting techniques. Guerrilla warfare for the under-sixteens, including training in hand-to-hand combat. Do-it-yourself weapons for schools: simple construction of mortars, flamethrowers, ballistic missiles. How to construct an ambush, a booby trap. Useful tips on terrorism, napalm, nuclear devices, with sections on robbery with violence, blackmail, piracy on the high seas, arson, karate.

The gleeful satire here makes me wish there were more Kavan pieces like this. While the energy of the story matches the picaresque energy of Ice, there’s nothing close to the humor of “Five Days to Countdown” in the rest of the collection. (I’m also a sucker for surreal British boarding school revolution stories, like Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film if….) The absurd vivacity of the tale culminates in a surreal apotheosis of sorts:

Esmerelda and I are swinging high over the world, conveyed through a sky full of snow by eight polar bears, whose bells jingle. Gosh, I never expected a happy ending.

Gosh, neither did I.

The previously-unpublished “Starting a Career” also ends on a positive, if ironic, note. The narrator (yet again!) receives a summons. This time, Kavan names the summoner—it’s Lord Legion, a-not-quite-ousted relic of older times who contests the President (the narrator’s employer) for power. The narrator agrees to become a spy for Lord Legion, a thrilling idea that loads his imagination with all kinds of fantasies.

I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be!

The lines ironically point to Kavan’s own sense of her legacy. While she maintained some success in her lifetime as a writer, she knew that the experimental and avant-garde nature of her writing would guarantee that, well, if she wasn’t exactly “the worlds best-kept secret,” she was definitely bound to some measure of obscurity. The world has a way of catching up to the avant-garde though, and the recent Penguin reissue of Ice and this new NYRB collection suggest that Kavan has found a broader, if not exactly mainstream, audience. Her writing is still challenging today—which is what makes it so engaging. As the collection’s editor Victoria Walker puts it in her foreword—

Kavan’s writing is not to everyone’s taste. Reading her work can be disorienting and discomforting; her narratives shift disconcertingly between past and present tense, first and third person. Her characters are often disagreeable, misanthropic, self-absorbed, priggish or delusional, and the paranoia of her nameless narrators is infectious.

Walker acknowledges that it’s not possible to neatly situate Kavan into any one group of writers. She points out that Kavan is definitely from the Tree of Kafka, and also admired Joyce and Woolf. Walker does make a small canon of writers on Kavan’s wavelength though, and I think the group is is worth listing out: H.P. Lovecraft, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Leonora Carrington, Unica Zurn, Ann Quin, and J.G. Ballard. (I’d also throw in João Gilberto Noll, Gisèle Prassinos, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Roberto Bolaño.)

memhtocm25cj7bjzlbio4ibpku
Two Ladders, 1947 by Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977)

Walker’s editing of the anthology is commendable. Images echo earlier images, motifs build, themes swell, and Machines in the Head offers what I believe to be a close-to-comprehensive showcase of Kavan’s proclivities and range. At the same time, I would’ve loved just a few more stories from the mid to later volumes, A Bright Green Field,  Julia and the Bazooka, and My Soul in China. It’s probable of course that Walker selected the more achieved pieces from those volumes, dispensing with sketches and experiments that didn’t quite come off—but I’d love to read, say “Lonely Unholy Shore” or “Mouse Shoes” from A Bright Green Field, or “Experimental” and “Obsessional” from Julia and the Bazooka, and really, just any other story from My Soul in China.

I would advise readers interested in Machines in the Head to start with the mid-late stuff. Maybe get into anything from A Bright Green Field and move forward a bit, before snacking on some of the shorter tales from Asylum Piece. You’ll get the full picture and also, perhaps, a more satisfying read. The selections from Asylum Piece are good but so chilly that they invoke a bit of brain freeze.

Machines in the Head provides a fantastic and surreal overview of an overlooked cult favorite, a writer whose work—long championed by those marvelous archivists, the sci-fi nerds—deserves a broader audience. The stories here will not comfort you and they won’t affirm any heroic sympathy for whatever-the-fuck the human condition is supposed to be. But they are terrifyingly, menacingly real in all their sinister surrealism. Recommended.