Miracles of Life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

Miracles of Life

by J.G. Ballard

HarperCollins, HK$280

'The author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!' So famously wrote a publishing industry executive asked to review the manuscript of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1973). That book was about deranged characters who derived sexual pleasure from staging and participating in often fatal car crashes. Early public responses to this explicit book and others did not stray far from that executive's and Ballard was labelled a deviant.

More than 30 years later, his new memoir, Miracles of Life, is poised to be the closing chapter in the life of yet another literary vanguard whose contributions will be acknowledged by literature through time, as much, if not more, as they were reflexively disparaged by its self-appointed gatekeepers on arrival.

As in his novels, death is never far from the reader's attention here, not least of all the promise of his own. Ballard takes until the closing passages to disclose what fans will already know: he is suffering from highly advanced prostate cancer and this will be his last book. Ballard's emotionless and ironic tone never buckles under the weight of this potential sentimentality and he sounds genuinely sanguine addressing the matter of his impending passing - mentioning it only briefly and making sure to thank a particularly helpful surgeon.

The work begins with Ballard's childhood, especially notable because he spent two years of it in an internment camp in Shanghai. It took him 40 years to address the subject in Empire of the Sun (1987), which was told from the perspective of an orphaned teenager in a Japanese camp. That book has long been regarded as Ballard's most personal but in this memoir he reveals previously unknown personal details about the period, including reflections on his parents.

At less than 300 pages the book is not a lengthy confessional memoir in any conventional sense. The post-war section of Ballard's life is almost cryptic in comparison to the detail paid to his childhood, pausing at seminal periods never more than a year long. Large swathes of time - decades, even - spent writing in the London suburbs are absent.

As in his fiction readers will marvel at what is important: he spends a few passages on the death of his wife and a chapter on a pop art exhibition in London in 1957, but in a convincing narrative that challenges assumptions about chronology and that has been crafted by a man with a supreme talent for omission. Martin Amis once said Ballard's prose worked on a different part of the brain to other writers' and there may be no better explanation for how Ballard can say so much with such economy. As with all his works, this book is better experienced than described.

This memoir is best thought of as an introduction to Ballard's psyche and his work. Critical interpretations centre on the influence of art on his novels and he gives an excellent introduction to the relationship, presenting his development as a writer as contemporaneous with his discovery of the pop art and surrealist revolutions of the mid-20th century. Those movements' artists challenged preconceptions to comment on modernity; so too did Ballard, through the new medium of

science fiction.

Not, he reminds us, the strict reimagining of the future, but in a genre that explores the impact of science on modern life and questions the effect of everything, from advertising to mass transit, on human psychology. His most misconstrued work, Crash, exists to allow him to explore his broader theme: the intersection of human desires and technology and how the latter can shape the former.

Perhaps in an age where sound bites reign supreme there is no greater tribute to Ballard's lasting impact as a modern writer than his canonisation into adjective: 'Ballardian' is recognised by Collins as relating to 'dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments'.

It is feasible though that as his legacy is inherited and his motives picked apart by academics, his name could come to mean something as simplistic as gritty prose. It is an irony of the new media age that James George Ballard may appreciate, if not anticipate.

For its readers Miracles of Life is the antidote to that possibility and the perfect introduction to a great champion of science fiction whose work is often profane but never reducible.