After reading The Drowned World for Vintage SciFi Month last year I knew that I wanted to read something more of Ballard’s work. Maybe not a lot more, but some. I’m still not sure I like his work, but I appreciate his writing style a lot.
Anyway, I had The Crystal World on the shelf, so here we are.
Ballard wrote three “disaster” novels: The Drowned World, The Drought (alternatively titled The Burning World), and The Crystal World, in which he tackled the British cosy catastrophe form in his own way. In The Crystal World parts of the jungle in the Cameroon Republic, the Florida Everglades and the Pripet Marshes in the Soviet Union are crystallizing, all life apparently being extinguished. The book focuses on Cameroon, where Doctor Edward Sanders is travelling into the affected area in search of his friend and fellow doctor Max, and Max’s wife Suzanne.
Sanders’ journey is far more inward than geographical, however, just as Kerans’ journey was in The Drowned World. The good doctor thinks of his friends and acquaintance only in terms of what they symbolise for him and is a profoundly solitary figure in this busy book. There is a great deal of action and what I feel is an unusual number of characters for Ballard (although I have only one book to go on, so I really can’t say that) zipping about between these pages, and while they all touch upon Sanders they never really touch him. He is almost completely turned in on himself.
Some of the drama going on around him is worthy of a gothic novel, or maybe a Victorian melodrama. Ventress, a peculiar, skull-faced character, is hunting the man who has taken his sickly wife; that man, Thorensen, is in turn hunting Ventress, only he has a number of panga-wielding local men to help him. Sanders himself was having an affair with Max’s wife before the couple disappeared; and in his search for them he takes up with a young reporter who is investigating what’s going on in the forest and trying to find her lost associate. There’s also a group of abandoned lepers, a Jesuit priest, a piratical boat owner, a young army doctor and a number of dead bodies. And yet none of these characters become more than the hectic wallpaper behind Sanders.
Something that solidified for me while I was reading this was my dislike for Ballard’s women. In The Drowned World I was … unsettled … by his portrayal of Beatrice Dahl, but since all the characters in that book left me cold I didn’t think overly much of it. In this book both Suzanne and the young reporter Louise are only ciphers in Sanders’ personal mythology, they’re never independent thinking, feeling beings. Ventress’ wife Selena, fought over by her husband and her lover, is also clearly not valued for herself, but for something she symbolises for these two men. It’s alienating to read something in which you are not recognised – and I’ve enough empathy to be able to cast that thought out as broadly as it will go.
While reading this book I’ve also been reading a collection of interviews that Ballard gave (Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard 1967-2008 edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara), and he was questioned about the lack of sympathetic male/female relationships in his books. His reply was:
“My fiction is all about one person, all about one man coming to terms with various forms of isolation … The protagonists of most of my fiction feel tremendously isolated, and that seems to exclude the possibility of a warm and fruitful relationship with anybody, let alone anyone as potentially close as a woman.”
Now, this will sound dumb, but it fascinated me that it was a conscious decision that served his ultimate agenda. Ballard comes across in all of his interviews as someone who thought deeply about the way in which he wrote his fiction, someone who wasn’t just telling a story with the language he had to hand, but was using that language as carefully as he was plotting his story and exploring his chosen theme. More like a poet maybe, than a novelist. And so, while I don’t like the way he portrays women, I can’t say I’m offended by it in the way that I am sometimes by other authors. I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not. It’s certainly something about which I have more thinking to do.
Anyway, back to the book. The strongest thing about Ballard’s writing remains his imagery. And I think this is what I find most attractive about his work so far. In The Drowned World the heat was palpable, here the seeping cold is equally so. As the forest crystallizes (an incredible image in itself) the cold creeps in and the light hardens. Everything becomes alien, annealing and vitrifying (two of Ballard’s favourite words in this book, along with “deliquescing”), reflecting and refracting. And the pictures that I’m left with are all slightly eerie: the crashed helicopter that “blossomed into an enormous translucent jewel”, the ruins of the white hotel, Thorensen’s dreadfully decorated house out in the jungle, the procession of lepers dancing into the forest, crocodiles and snakes with jewels for eyes as they slowly crystallize.
Honestly, I don’t think I could read more than one Ballard book a year for fear of losing the will to live. This is a stunning novel, as was The Drowned World, but I can’t say I liked it or would read it again. One of the things that made me chuckle reading his interviews was that Ballard maintained that his disaster trilogy all had happy endings. By travelling into the mystery rather than running away from it, his heroes are fulfilling their destinies. And while I can appreciate the symbolic nature of such a decision, I think I must just be too practical to agree with it. If my world starts crystallizing, I will absolutely be driving in the opposite direction with my foot to the floor.