Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967–2008,
Edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara.
Fourth Estate, 2012.
Hardcover, 304 pages, £25.
In the program Frost on Interviews, recently rebroadcast on British television, the distinguished journalist David Frost attempts to understand what makes a compelling interview. In particular, the program focuses on the actions of the interviewer: should one take a relaxed or heavy-handed approach with their guest?
This approach would not have fit too comfortably in an interview with the late J. G. Ballard, whose Extreme Metaphors is light-years away from the Frost approach.
For J. G. Ballard—arguably one of the most important prose fiction writers to contribute to British culture in the post-war period—an interview wasn’t just an opportunity to flog his latest novel, talk about his characters, or name check his literary heroes.
Any time Ballard indulged a journalist—usually at his home in Shepperton—for an intimate chat, the occasion became almost an experiment where the writer tests his hypothesis with his interlocutor.
We see a remarkable example of this in a conversation from 1974, when journalist Carol Orr asks Ballard for a prediction about the future of Western culture. He responds by speaking about a society where people “want to be alone and watch television.”
Orr, horrified at what she clearly perceived to be an immoral and apocalyptic outcome, says she wants to be neither in a traffic jam, or “alone on a dune, either.” To which Ballard replies, “Being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realize.”
The interview ends shortly afterwards, but it’s exemplary of Ballard taking the format and twisting it to his advantage in the same way a writer does with an essay: meandering around different ideas, following the intellect at all times, but never attempting to arrive with a definitive polemic, or thesis, at the final destination.
For Ballard, the interview is a fitting moment to take images from his artistic landscape and see how they fit into the society of which we are all supposedly a part: the nightmare marriage between sex and technology in Crash, the empty swimming pools and vast deserted cities in Cocaine Nights, or the preoccupation with class consciousness in High Rise. All become topics open for discussion.
The book includes over forty-four different interviews spanning a period of forty-one years, and many of the quotes it contains read like aphorisms: “Most of us lead comparatively isolated lives”; “There is a darker corner of the human psyche that intrigues us”; “The automobile represents an extension of one’s own personality.”
His work is a challenge to readers, almost encouraging them in a conviction (about which he was ambivalent) to bring to life their latent desires and psychopathologies through the use of technology that modernity makes possible.
Despite his enthusiasm for the infinite possibilities between man and machine, Ballard was well aware how the ravenous appetite of the human psyche could easily lead down dark roads that might be best left alone. In a 2000 interview, he told John Gray:
I think if you introduce elements of the latest technology—it doesn’t matter whether it’s the motor car, or the jet plane, or the fax machine or email—you’re facilitating a much larger exchange of human ambitions, motives, hates, fears, fantasies, aggression, paranoia, political ambition, criminal violence. All this is made possible by advanced communication technologies.
One of the defining characteristics of Ballard’s prose is that he sees little distinction between the fictionalized universe of the novel and the fantasy world emblematic of late-capitalism.
He believed the writer’s job in a Western consumer-driven society was no longer to invent fiction, but to “put in the reality” instead.
By ignoring the impact of modernity on the human condition, Ballard maintains, the literary establishment deludes itself by continually mass-producing the sentimental bourgeois novel, an entity he refers to as “the greatest enemy of truth ever invented.”
Some of his portentous predictions are indeed remarkable. As early as 1978, Ballard talks about how technology will gives us more freedom, “where each of us will be at the center of a sort of nonstop serial.” While he didn’t put a name to such ideas, we can now easily recognize them on an hourly basis as we log into our Facebook and Twitter accounts to narrate and give meaning to our personal lives, acting them out like a soap opera.
In addition to the relentless prophesying, analysis of the consumerist utopian dream, and articulation of the struggle between the liberal illusion of freedom and the false premise of totalitarianism, these interviews also give us a closer insight into Ballard’s poignant and troubled past.
The writing of prose fiction, it seems, was a coping mechanism, helping him deal with two horrific experiences: the internment he underwent as a child with his parents in a prison camp in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai in the Second World War, which he later fictionalized slightly in Empire of the Sun (1984); and the sudden death of his wife, Helen Mary Matthews, in 1964.
A key to reading the seer of Shepperton—be it novels or interviews—is not to take a literal approach. Whether he is opining on consumerism, machines, or the violent sexual fantasies that lie dormant as we sit in our gated suburban communities, it might be worth making an analogy to how Ballard viewed the work of the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud:
If you think of him as a novelist . . . if you regard all the aspects of [his views] on the psyche as symbolic structures, as metaphors, then they have enormous power.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.