In 2009, a news item in the Hollywood Reporter announced that a film adaptation of the late British writer’s J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild, starring Samuel L. Jackson, was to be produced in South Africa. The source material revolves around children of a British exclusive gated community massacring their parents, the savage violence a psychotic, perverse response to the sterile environment around them. In the end, the film was never produced. But it has a disturbing parallel with a later real-world event. In 2015, 20-year-old Henri van Breda murdered his family with an axe on the exclusive De Zalze security estate in Stellenbosch. The motivations for this shocking crime have yet to be fully established…
This interzone between reality and fiction speaks to the power of Ballard’s work. In his novels and short stories, he dealt with the extreme psychological effects of late capitalism, and its mental landscape of car crashes and casinos, advertising and nuclear weapons systems, celebrity and apocalypse. Born in 1930, he grew up in the European colonial settlement in Shanghai, an oasis of privilege in an intense city of poverty and political upheaval. After the Japanese army invaded, he and his family were interned in a POW camp- an experience which he said gave him the sense that reality was like a malleable stage-set, that could be drastically altered by violence and technology. After the war, he studied medicine in England, dropping out to become an RAF pilot in Canada. Returning to the UK, he got married and began to write surrealist inspired science fiction, touching on global warming and the mediation of reality through new media. In the early 1960s, his wife suddenly died. Ballard dealt with this trauma by producing extreme fictions like The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and High Rise (all of which have been adapted to film). While being by all accounts an exemplary single parent to three children, he also maintained his guarded links to the counter-culture, having dinner with William Burroughs, hosting radical pop art happenings and once trying LSD- which he hated! In the 1970’s, his writing had a profound impact on the aesthetics of UK punk and post-punk, and later science fiction authors like William Gibson. Ballard continued to produce challenging fiction up to his death, with his later works dealing with the ominous connections between a consumerist and security obsessed society and outright fascism.
The vast influence he exerts on literature, film, architecture and music reflects how his writing continues to describe the baroque lunacy of modern life. A lunatic reality show American president, or the daily derangement of social media, is the stuff Ballard was writing on decades ago. And his stature only grows as people repurpose his writing. For example, in 1980 Joy Division borrowed the title of The Atrocity Exhibition for a song on their final album Closer. The lyrics about “mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen” and “asylums with doors open wide, where people had paid to see inside” describe the fracturing inner landscape of singer Ian Curtis. In 2016, rapper Danny Brown used it for his album title, inspired by the disturbing imagery regularly captured on smart-phones.
Although Ballard is often framed as a dystopian writer, he actually has a far more transgressive, even transformative vision. As Australian writer Simon Sellars put it in his new book Applied Ballardianism, his characters do not always passively accept the brutal nihilism of the world around them, but try to work through it: “they want to change the world for the better, even if that means they meet the rate of change via extreme imaginative ends, embracing disaster for the change it affords to strip away old modes of being and begin again.” This challenging proposition is embraced fully in this delirious blend of autobiography, fiction and theory, in which the narrator effectively tries to live out Ballard’s fiction in reality.
The book is presented as a tripped-out memoir, revolving around a disaffected young Australian who begins a PhD on Ballard’s work. This begins a hallucinatory odyssey which takes them from Europe to Japan, to ruined and cursed ancient cities in the Pacific. Driven by their darkest impulses and the sense of an imminent techno-apocalypse, they experience UFO encounters, the deranged automobile violence of the Melbourne suburbs and brushes with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. While the book is nihilistic in parts, it’s infused with a hilarious sense of black comedy. The self-loathing narrator is constantly drawn into relatable romantic disasters, and drug and alcohol fuelled misadventures, which give the story a wry sense of humanity.
I love this book. It’s wild and unhinged, while also beautifully written. Freely mixing pulp visions and critical theory, Sellars creates a narrative voice for our time. More than just a homage to Ballard’s work, it extends his challenging creative legacy. In a year on a heating planet, where it feels that consumer capitalism is a vast world-snake in the terminal stages of cannibalising itself, Applied Ballardianism offers a narrative voice fitting for such disturbing, pre-apocalyptic times.