By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
In Miracles, however,he turns his gaze inward. Or maybe he’s just X-raying his own life in order to diagnose the everyday pathologies of 20th-century parenting and the diseases of the English psyche. In the affluent expatriate community of prewar Shanghai, Ballard’s father, a chemist for a textile manufacturer, and his mother, a Lady Who Lunches, orbit past young Jim on the social whirligig of life, hosting “elaborately formal dinner parties” or playing cricket at the Country Club. “Children were an appendage to the parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador.”
But the Japanese occupation of Shanghai made a mockery of the societal super ego of British empire, and Lunghua, where the guards were the only power that mattered, rendered parental authority impotent. Jamie the uniformed English schoolboy morphs, before our eyes, into Shanghai Jim the wild boy, idolizing the wisecracking American merchant seamen interned at Lunghua, befriending the young Japanese soldiers (whose warrior code impresses him), and “tucking in lustily” to his plate of boiled rice and what his mother euphemistically called “weevils” but were more likely maggots, an important source of protein for internees on starvation rations.
For the irrepressibly optimistic Ballard, his two-and-a-half years in Lunghua were profoundly liberating. “Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind,” he writes, “but it was a prison where I found freedom” — freedom from class anxiety, emotional repression and other neuroses of the English psyche. He socializes freely with people of every age and class. But “the most important consequence of internment was that for the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents” — literally, since he “slept, ate, read, dressed and undressed within a few feet of them” in a tiny room.
But even the forced intimacy of Lunghua couldn’t entirely thaw the emotional frigidity between the young Jim and his parents. “Lying in bed at night, I could, if I wanted to, reach out and touch my mother’s hand,” he writes, adding, in one of the book’s most painfully poignant afterthoughts, “though I never did.” By the very nature of the situation, his parents were powerless, with “no say in what we ate, no power in how we lived or ability to shape events.” This sows the seeds of an estrangement that lasts long past Lunghua, to the end of his parents’ lives — an ache Ballard seems to feel, even now. (When he publishes his first novel, his father, by then a distant mirage, calls to congratulate him, “pointing out one or two minor errors that I was careful not to correct. My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.”)
Nonetheless, his brief-lived intimacy with his parents in Lunghua profoundly shaped the unabashedly affectionate father he would become to his three children — the “miracles of life” to whom he dedicates the book. In contrast to the hushed mausoleum of his boyhood home in Shanghai, Ballard’s house in the London suburb of Shepperton “was a chaotic, friendly brawl, as a naked parent dripping from the bath broke up a squabble between the girls over a favorite crayon, while their brother triumphantly strutted in his mother’s damp footprints. Mayhem ruled.”
In 1964, after his young wife Mary dies suddenly from pneumonia, Ballard — pardon the pop psych — becomes the dad his father never was. (Freud may have served as a surrogate, as Ballard hints when he notes that “Freud’s serene and masterful tone, his calm assumption that psychoanalysis could reveal the complete truth about modern man and his discontents, appealed to me powerfully, especially in the absence of my own father.” Italics added.) Fathers singlehandedly raising their children were “extremely rare in the 1960s,” writes Ballard, but he delighted in the role. “Some fathers make good mothers, and I hope I was one of them,” he writes, “though most of the women who know me would say that I made a very slatternly mother, notably unkeen on housework, unaware that homes need to be cleaned now and then, and too often to be found with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other — in short, the kind of mother, no doubt loving and easygoing, of whom the social services deeply disapprove.”
Ballard has no regrets. Watching Fay, Beatrice and Jim grow up was “the richest and happiest” time of his life. If this makes Miracles sound overly Oprah-friendly — a cross between Running With Scissors and the Bataan Death March, with a three-hankie ending and the requisite “closure” — it isn’t. There’s too much darkness in this long life — the casual brutality of prewar Shanghai, the senseless tragedy of his wife’s death — to make a Hallmark Movie out of Miracles. And Ballard’s tone, while affable — waggish, even — and hugely generous of spirit throughout, is matter-of-factly unsentimental (the better part of British reserve?). Even when he drops the bomb, in the book’s last pages, that he’s battling advanced prostate cancer, the equanimity with which he steps lightly across the threshold of his own mortality is powerfully affecting.
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