Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Empire of the Sun was Important

Since JG Ballard’s death recently I’ve heard a lot of people on the radio, in print and in casual conversations praise Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Perhaps the conversations are not that surprising as I’m in Shanghai so obviously the novel has a certain resonance for people here interested in the history of the pre-revolutionary Shanghailanders. So I’ll throw in my twopenny worth for what’s its worth.

Personally I’ve never actually thought Empire of the Sun was a great book – at least not within Ballard’s overall cannon which contains several more important and greater works notably Crash (1973) and his other dystopian novels of the British new wave (a wave he largely created).

In this sense Empire is an aberration rather than the norm in terms of Ballard’s work. A "novel",

though obviously based on Ballard’s own experiences, rather than an autobiography and not intended as a a reliable historical text. Indeed Ballard never claimed it should be used as such (when other internees disputed his book he had to point this out repeatedly to peopel who refused to see the word "novel" on the cover) and insisted the words ‘A Novel’ appeared on the cover. Of course Spielberg’s film (and it’s hard to imagine the Hollywood engendered Spielberg liking anything else of Ballard’s – surely he would have been put off by the "adultness" and remorseless downbeat nature of his fiction) further removed the book from any reality with the rather annoying insertion of several scenes not in the book that seem to add nothing except a certain late twentieth century political correctness Spielberg is of course noted for.

So if it’s not exactly a great book why is it important? It seems to me that Ballard’s stark dystopian literature, his nervousness of the culture of consumption and general social vacuity are best understood

through the prism of his wartime experiences. That’s why reading Empire (and his decidedly less commonly read, but arguably more revealing, follow up The Kindness of Women, published in 1991) is important – not to learn anything about Shanghai (which you won’t unless you know absolutely nothing about the place and time, in which case sue your history teachers) or particularly Ballard’s experiences or feelings at the time (Jim is not him he was always keen to point out and says little about the situation either personally or politically) but to better understand the roots of Ballard’s incredibly important fiction that he wrote after he returned to England.

I think Ballard himself saw Empire this way. In one of his last interviews with the BBC he discussed his youthful experiences. Ballard accepted that of course his fiction would have been totally different if he had not undergone the unpleasantness of inte rnment in Shanghai and of course it had changed and shaped him to a great extent. Ballard’s fiction often challenges the assumptions of the security of daily life we generally have and, of course, at a young age Ballard saw those illusions shattered completely.

In Shanghai Ballard learnt the essential surrealism of life – he remembers walking the previously neat and prosperous streets and seeing cars on their roofs (the bomb that fell outside the Cathay Hotel left), apartment buildings shattered to reveal their innards of 20 living rooms and 20 private lives that weren't meant to be on public display and of course dead bodies littering the pavement (both the starved and the bombed). Ballard believed that the war had made him nervous of bland reassurances that everything was all right and that when anyone told him everything was “all right”, it was invariably anything but. As he said, ‘reality is a stage set that can be swept aside, as I saw as a boy in Shanghai.’

Clearly that loss of one privileged life for another dystopian one is key as was (and noted in The Kindness of Women) the unexpected death of Ballard’s wife at a young age that left him a widower with three children to care for) proved to him the transient and temporary nature of everyday seemingly constant reality.

What else did he take from his Shanghai days? I think an instinctive distrust of uncircumscribed and rampant capitalism (though he was far from a revolutionary socialist) and a certain sense that anarchy can break out in a moment and things, however seemingly permanent, can be smashed to smithereens in the blink of eye (or the fall of a Japanese bomb on Shanghai Railway Station 1937 as left). I think he also learnt to appreciate the ridiculous lengths people go to protect themselves from perceived threats real and false,to insulate themselves. This comes out in numerous Ballard novels where people retreat behind walls they think can protect them - think of the horrendous gated communities of his 2000 novel Super-Cannes. Of course Ballard saw walls around everyone's properties in Shanghai in the 1930s - another tradition that continues today as everyone puts up walls, hires guards and puts bars on their windows to protect them from...what? Ultimately Ballard knew that once inside such supposedly secure and isolated places you then went basically nuts, became paranoid and broke down.

Interestingly I think one of the most important things he took from Shanghai that became a recurrent theme for him - the human struggle within a consumerist landscape – ended in 1937 but has come back to haunt the city as the post-1949 powers that be encourage consumption over spirituality and shopping as the great ideology-religion-culture to end all others and to negate opposition or disgruntlement with one's lot in life.

It was these experiences that shaped Ballard’s incredible fiction and therefore why reading Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women remains important. The interesting thing to ponder is quite how Ballard partly predicted the descent of Shanghai into a consumerist driven dystopia where briefs fads for fusion cuisine and competitive shopping replace thought and experience? There can be few more “Ballardian” spots on earth than the vacuous self styled “elite” crowds gathering on the balcony of 3 on the Bund, the oddly philistine speculators of Shanghai’s art scene or the injunction of the local government that to shop is patriotic; to question dissent – in this sense Ballard did come full circle whether he thought about modern Shanghai or not.


David Petersen said...

That was a wonderful piece. I've already read it somewhere too about his camp internment experience shaping his writing method but this is still a remarkable piece. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Insightful. Reading 'Empire' for about the tenth time and now see a need to explore Ballard's writing further. I find 'Empire' to be an incredibly moving book true to the letter or not. 'Jim' is least he's written that way, I see him in my own son. It both saddens and exhilarates me, frightens me and makes me brave. Thanks for the piece and the opportunity to comment.

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