J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

BY MARK DERY

The British novelist J.G. Ballard, author of Crash, Empire of the Sun, and Miracles of Life, among other books, died Sunday, April 19, after a protracted battle with prostate cancer.

Ballard is gone, wheels-up from the abandoned airstrip of our imaginations, but his coiled brilliance will lie in waiting for just the right unsuspecting teenager -- and there's always one, in every suburb -- who opens Crash to read the unforgettable lines, "Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash. During our friendship, he had rehearsed his death in many car crashes, but this was his only true accident." She will read those lines, and 224 pages later, close the book dazedly, firm in the knowledge that her worldview has been shattered and wired back together, and for the darker better.

The sci-fi novelist William Gibson was one such teenager.

"I was so young when I first discovered Ballard's work," he told me, in an interview for my L.A. Weekly review of Ballard's memoir, Miracles of Life. "Thirteen, fourteen. I probably read him before I read Burroughs, but only by a few months. I seem to remember Burroughs baffling me at first, too many moving parts, but Ballard seemed to have the keys to the kingdom."

"He's truly a great science fiction writer," emailed Bruce Sterling, Gibson's unindicted co-conspirator in the cyberpunk insurgency. "One of the few. Lovecraft is also a great science fiction writer, and creates the same intensely visionary world, the same kind of lasting, all-devouring, even bewildering appeal. But Ballard certainly writes much better than Lovecraft. He's a better artist."

Ballard -- the pathologist of the 20th century -- was always an affable soul; the man who wrote "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" and who loved to scandalize journalists by rhapsodizing (tongue in cheek? we'll never know . . .) about the Caligulan charisma of Margaret Thatcher was, at all times, the perfect gentleman. Nor was he ever less than witty, whether in my interviews with him or in all the others I obsessively read (a form of which he, like Boswell's Johnson, was the incomparable master, tossing off apercus and deftly skipping insights across the surface of a conversation). His curtain call, Miracles of Life, written while cancer gnawed, is the most exuberantly life-loving of all his books, ironically -- a last review of the home movies with the children who, he insisted, raised him (after his wife died) and a passionate valentine to all the women in his life.

He regarded the USA with a kind of horrified delight, and loved best all that is worst about our theme-parked nightmare, which he reimagined in Hello America as a post-apocalyptic disaster zone, presided over by a President Charles Manson. And he cordially detested the class-conscious, parochial England of Prince Charles' Poundbury and the Boy's Own Paper, refusing Commander of the British Empire honors in 1993 with the withering quip that such "Ruritanian charade[s]" help "prop up our top-heavy monarchy."

Yet, to this closet anglophile, Ballard was in some ways inescapably English: magnanimous in his support of younger writers (he blurbed both my books -- extravagantly) but reclusive in his personal life; generous of spirit yet, according to those who knew him best, fiercely private and, during the exhausting death march of the past years, stoic. In that sense, he represented the best of British reserve. In later years, with his domed forehead, jowls, and long, white hair curling over his collar, he looked like Charles Laughton in a Roman role -- Juvenal, perhaps. And that voice! To this American ear, Ballard's drawling delivery and plummy tone always sounded unmistakably donnish.

In the L.A. Weekly, I wrote, "It's not yet time to write Ballard's epitaph, but when it is, his poetic, almost liturgical credo, 'What I Believe' (1984), will do nicely:

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

Among the neurotic condos of Vermilion Sands; beside the concrete bunkers of the Terminal Beach, half-submerged in silt; across the manicured grounds of that sociopathic Club Med, Eden-Olympia; and in all the Sheppertons of the soul and Shanghai mansions of memory, flags are flying at half-staff.


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