Tuesday, April 29, 2014

J.G. Ballard's HELLO AMERICA

While the Planet of the Apes' iconic Statue of Liberty Buried In The Sand is an old favorite, I think I prefer J.G. Ballard's Lady Liberty: Navigation Hazard (see the Dutch cover for this novel, in the lower right corner of this post), upon whose crown which the good ship Apollo (named for, of course, the famous lunar expeditions) tears open its hull as its already mad captain takes it full steam ahead toward the glittering golden dunes engulfing New York City as depicted in this brilliant cover art.

I can't exactly call Hello America post-apocalyptic; the rest of the world is just fine, thanks (albeit yes, culturally and technologically ebbing from the high water mark of mid-century civilization). America, though, is a hundred years dead, victim of its own excess (the fossil fuels ran out) and of other countries' questionable decisions, chiefly that of the USSR, which dammed the Bering Strait to improve its own climate and make of Siberia the world's new bread basket. Altering ocean currents so profoundly has left (most of) North America a scorching desert, one which Ballard of course describes vividly and beautifully:
Half the Appalachians had been destroyed by the sun to yield this deluge of rock and dust. Street signs and traffic lights protruded from the sand, a rusty metallic flora, old telephone lines trailed waist-high marking out a labyrinth of pedestrian catwalks. Here and there, in the hollows between the dunes, were the glass doors of bars and jewelry stores, dark grottoes like subterranean caves... In the centre of Times Square a giant saguaro cactus raised its thirty foot arms into the over-heated air, an imposing sentinel guarding the entrance to a desert nature reserve.
We see this surreal future cityscape through the eyes of one of Ballard's more active protagonists, Wayne, a Dublin-born descendant of Americans who fled back to Europe when America became uninhabitable. Wayne starts his journey as a stowaway aboard the Liberty-crashing Apollo, which is bringing a scientific expedition to America to investigate the source of some worrisome radiation readings that are coming from the continent's interior -- the last one who left did not turn out the nuclear lights, if you know what I mean. True to Ballardian form, Wayne is driven by a strange obsession, or set of obsessions, as is each member of the ship's crew. For Wayne, coming to America is both a search for his half-imaginary missing father (a scientist from a prior expedition that never returned) and for his own destiny, for young Wayne fantasizes about being the 45th President of the United States.*

Wayne crosses the continent with a strange crew of scientists, paramilitary wannabes, the usual Ballardian cast, right down to the token female, physicist Anne Summers, who is, as usual, stuck carrying all the men's bullshit anima projections across the desert and into the Amazonian jungle that has encroached into the American Southwest (now as lush and overgrown as the East is dry and Saharan, because deliberate climate change). So the ship's captain and most of the other military types assume she'll be their submissive sex-kitten once the desert has softened her up and teased loose that severe hairdo, which happens soon enough: "and there emerged, like a flare of light from a grenade, the long blonde hair that now shadowed her from the sun... This white mane made her resemble some beautiful nomadic widow, endlessly crossing the desert in search of a young husband."

Of course that second fantasy is Wayne's. He's going to make her his First Lady, don't you know. A gallant, gallant soul, is Wayne. And never mind what Anne might actually want for herself. No, really, never mind, because (sigh) her character pretty much devolves the second she sets foot on the "golden" sands of Manhattan. She's a nuclear physicist of enough importance to be selected for this potentially vital expedition, but get her near a derelict department store and all she wants to do is loot ball gowns and cosmetics counters so she can play dress up. Oh, Anne.

So yeah, Wayne (and Ballard, dammit) could probably do better.

Ah, but so many things stand between Wayne and his goals (goals! A Ballardian protagonist with goals!), not the least of which is the new Great American Desert**, still sparsely populated by the weird, half-savage descendents of the people who couldn't get/keep it together enough to evacuate the continent when everyone else did; these post-American Indians are divided into regional tribes with names like The Professors (from Boston), The Executives (Manhattan) and The Bureaucrats (Washington DC), who engage in bizarre cargo-cult imitations of mid-20th-century civilziation and name themselves after major international brand names.*** So soon Wayne finds himself in the company of freaks named GM and Pepsodent... and the reader finds herself wondering when he's going to encounter Mrs. Etheyl Shroake and establish diplomatic relations with England-after-the-nuclear-misunderstanding.

Enter one Charles Manson, who has deliberately adopted the name of the 20th century's most famous psycho killer and has beaten Wayne to the job of being POTUS #45. A most Kurtz-like figure might Manson seem to be, except it's pretty obvious that he was looney-tunes long before he set up his kingdom in the jungle and started up a program of bizarre Phildickian robot-building and nuclear-missile-recommissioning with the help of a scientist who got stranded in America a generation or so ago...

So yes, of all the Ballard I've read to date, Hello America is the most nearly plot-driven. Story elements come together, as do characters. Loose ends get tied up. A story gets told. The work is every bit as vividly hallucinatory and allusive as the elemental apocalypse books, every bit as beautifully written, every bit as hiply magical, but it's more of an actual story than I've grown used to coming from him. Which is awesome.

But even so, the plot is not really the point, for above all else, Hello America is a meditation on the emptiness of mid-century dreaming, of our culture's enduring fixation on Presidents and movie stars and madmen, in which we seem wont to indulge even at the expense of sustaining the civilization that produced these idols. Somebody else clean up this mess; I wanna have a martini and look at Playboy. And shut up about Peak Oil. What are you, a Russki?

And it's also an indulgence in that most seductive of fantasies, that of infinite elbow room. Everybody who comes to this America has a dream of having a continent to him- or herself. Perhaps everybody always has. Hell, as Sartre observed, is other people. So the gleaming golden shore of a dune-submerged metropolis must look a lot like heaven.

At least until your camels die. Or you run out of lipstick. Or you find yourself staring down a scrum of robotic Presidents.

Ballard, man...

*The 44th, of course, having been Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown, who spent out the remainder of his term and days meditating at some Japanese zen center after his nation and his presidency dissolved into a state of non-being.

**Which, this landscape and the remnants of human attempts to maintain the status quo ante for a while within it make Hello America feel almost like a direct sequel to The Burning World, as Wayne and his party keep encountering sad little examples of pathetic attempts to survive that world's new normal -- water reclamation stills built out of spare parts, kluged-together steam engines hastily mounted into classic Detroit-built automobiles, etc.

***More stuff to tick off the feminist in you: not only is there an all female tribe called The Divorcees who are pretty much just a multi-form parody of mid-century womanhood, but then there's this cultural tidbit from the Executive tribe: all Executive women are named Xerox, because they make good copies.

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