Monday, July 16, 2012

100 Books #65 - J.G. Ballard's THE BURNING WORLD

Sometimes I read to escape my situation; sometimes I read to wallow in it. I suspect that my taking up The Burning World during this hot, dry, searing, scorching summer of wildfire and little rain is due to the latter tendency, but I'm not entirely sure. I never am, with J.G. Ballard.

This is my third foray into the gently trippy, weirdly abstracted imagination of this mid-century master (last year saw me sinking under the surface of The Drowned World; I spent part of February freezing over in The Crystal World. I guess I'll have to track down The Wind from Nowhere next, to get all of Ballard's "Elemental Apocalypse" quartet under my belt), and I'll definitely be returning for more. Nothing compares to a Ballard novel: short, vivid, melancholy, yet curiously detatched, just like his characters, who are never fighting the drowning/crystallizing/burning of their worlds, but rather just observing and saying something along the lines of "Well. How about that?"

As the novel opens, Charles Ransom, -- our, well, I hesitate to call him either hero or protagonist, so let's just call him our viewpoint character -- lives and waits in the lakeside community of Larchmont, where his marriage to Judith has dried up along with most of the continent. At first, it is she, but not he, who is preparing to follow most of the rest of the area's residents in abandoning the town forever in an exodus to the coast, where desalinization plants offer humanity's last hope. Soon Ransom is left only with the remnants of a somewhat bullying Presbyterian minister's shotgun-toting congregation, Mr. Lomax, a possibly deranged architect expending every last bit of his resources in pursuit of what he imagines is going to be a promising future, Lomax's even more bizarre sister Miranda*, a weirdo named Quilter who runs around with a dead peacock hanging off his belt, and Ransom's friend, Philip Jordan, a strange, silent young man of about 20 whose whole life was spent mucking about in the water until the water started to go.

And then there's the fishermen, whether bent over a beached boat "like widows over a coffiin", standing mutely, hats in hands, at the back of Reverend Johnstone's church, or rampaging through the streets with nets like toreadors, become fishers of men for their own quixotic crusade, because Larchmont isn't nearly sad or Lovecraftian enough yet. Really. I'm talking burning churches wearing sturgeon's heads as hats Lovecraftian.

The cause of all this desolation both is and isn't plausible (not that causes or plausibility seem ever to be the point, in Ballard): decades of pollution and discharge into the oceans has left a soup of petrochemicals and polymers that have formed a thin but impenetrable skin on their surfaces that has halted, probably forever, the cycle of evaporation and precipitation that makes life on land possible. This is my first Ballard, in other words, in which the end of the world is humanity's fault.

Not that any hand-wringing over this happens, as would be true with pretty much any other author. The closest we come is the sermons of Reverend Johnstone, who regards the drought not so much as punishment as just another manifestation of the opus contra naturam by which man earns his right to exist in creation. All those migrators away from the dwindling lake and the withering vegetation are sinners for their lack of faith and sissies who are unworthy of the grace of God.

But not Charlie. Charlie thinks he is staying put, though not, of course, for any reasons the Reverend would understand, nor, I suspect, any that Charlie would, either. His inaction, even when impulsively accompanying a water truck driver to deliver the last of the water from Lomax's swimming pool to a local zoo to keep the animals there alive for a few more days, draws always the same reaction from others: they want to know what he is going to do, why he hasn't left, as though somehow knowing that will make their own paths clearer. But Ransom can't help them. He's about to have problems of his own.

Like holding onto his humanity once circumstances finally compel him to leave Larchmont with just three other people, on his own lemming-like journey to the sea:
During their journey to the south he had felt an increasing sense of vacuum, as if he was pointlessly following a vestigial instinct that no longer had any real meaning for him. The four people with him were becoming more and more shadowy, residues of themselves as notional as the empty river.

Another common theme in Ballard, that, it seems**; the guy did imagine everybody dreaming of slipping back, evolutionarily, to their lizard brains or beyond in The Drowned World.

I must digress here for a moment, for I find I have a similar experience when I read Ballard. The characters and their immediate situations are always sort of drifting in and out of my consciousness. I've pondered this for a while and decided that this is because Ballard manages to summon so many cultural ghosts to haunt his stories. Phrases or passages suggest Shakespeare, Saramago, Sebald, Homer, Tolkien, tarot decks, Greenaway and Herzog films, but do so with such subtlety that one doesn't consciously notice it as she reads along. Ballard is a hypnotist, and he's inducing daydreams. Hence the bewildering effect of seemingly ordinary passages like this, when our hero spots a man in a dusty cotton suit, sort of shambling ahead in the distance: "Without thinking, Ransom walked forward a few paces, as if following the man. He waited, almost expecting to see a dog appear and run around the man's heels." The Fool card. And now I'm tripping on T.S. Eliot and Tim Powers... meanwhile the mystery man keeps shambling along in the "absolute isolation of the chalkwhite promenade, with its empty perspectives..."

Imagine experiencing something like that every few paragraphs, and then you'll see that Ballard is expanding way beyond the notional 160 pages of this novel, or page count of any novel. I could share examples of this until this post was longer even than my Lord of the Rings rambles.

This effect should be a flaw by most gauges of literary worth or entertainment value that I know of, but it's not. Novels are supposed to suck you into another world when you read them. Ballard just sucks the rest of the world in with you.

That's not to say Ballard is just borrowing other art. There is original imagery that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life in this novel:
They reached the margins of the river estuary. the funnel-shaped area had once been bordered by marshes and sandfalts, and the low-lying ground still seemed damp and gloomy, despite the hot sunlight breaking across the dry grass. The hundreds of vehicles parked among the dunes and hillocks had sunk up to their axles in the soft sand, their roofs tilting in all directions.
And so begins our fossil record, no?

Ballard writes a lot about isolation and solipsism, directly or indirectly, always in a perfectly neutral tone, no judgement or consequence. His characters just end up islands or, in this case, dunes, just as we who read him do, for surely no two of us are ever lured into the same space. And once lured or driven apart, these characters seldom reunite as they adapt in their idiosyncratic ways to their utterly transformed world. And when they do come back together, it's not always in merry meetings. Adaptation and isolation do lead, after all, to speciation, don't they.

And so it is on the seacoast to which Ransom brings his three companions, Philip Jordan, Jordan's blind and elderly foster father, the Calibanesque Quilter's witchy mother (yeah, shades of Sycorax!), and a red-haired former zookeeper, Catherine. A ten-year lacuna sunders them utterly (not that that's very hard), and when next we see them, they are unrecognizable. And as to what they get up to, reverting as they have to a primitive life of sealskin capes and repurposed fragments of the old world, is as bizarre, yet well-imagined, as anything I have ever seen. Capturing water that the tide washes up and then steals away is difficult enough; moving it around enough to leach out the salt is monumental; stealing it is almost ridiculously complicated!

But even that mighty effort is just a stop-gap, if a long one. It's no way to live, and echoes of Lomax's last words to Ransom, telling him that he'll be back someday, have already dragged the reader's thoughts back to Larchmont even before the excuse is found to try going there. That suggestion, planted so long ago, is the deepest and most compelling of all, and so it doesn't matter a bit that the excuse found doesn't make a lot of sense. Why, of course.

I'm perhaps no longer making sense, but Ballard does that to me, just like W.G. Sebald did. I'm in awe and maybe still a little entranced. And watching everything burn. Well. How about that?

*There is totally a sort of reverse-Tempest thing going on; Quilter gets compared to Caliban at least as often as Philip Jordan to Ariel; Lomax might make an Antonio to Ransom's Prospero, but as Miranda belongs to/with Lomax (sister rather than daughter, but still) perhaps it is he who is Prospero? But Ransom does not seem like a usurper type, or any other of the types from the Shakespeare play. And maybe he's not supposed to. Maybe I'm getting carried away with the analogies. I do that, sometimes. But really: there's even rather a lot of repetition of the world "bosun."

**I keep saying "it seems" about Ballard because I'm being cautious. I've only read three of his books to date, and so am not entirely comfortable making sweeping pronouncements about what is or is not common to Ballard's work, thematically or otherwise. BUT, I do feel somewhat backed up in my sense of Ballard by this great little piece by Martin Amis that appeared recently in the Guardian. And I plan to become a real Ballardian. That's right, dear readers, there are going to be many more musings on Ballard's books in this here blog.

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