The Complete Stories
of J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton: 1,200 pp., $35
Readers anxious about reading “The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard” -- now appearing in the U.S. for the first time -- may care to approach it in the form of a simple word game. Ballard, who died this spring in London at age 78, wrote prolifically in and out of the science fiction genre, and the pleasures of this book are as plentiful as its mass is intimidating. The guide below (inspired by the format of Ballard’s do-it-yourself espionage narrative “The Beach Murders”) will suggest a starting point for your exploration of this staggeringly great and varied volume.
Apocalypse: “The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B.,” the penultimate story here, is a lovely coda in which the lone man at the end of the world can “begin his true work,” in the absence of people, of all animals save “birds of every species.”
Crowds: Directions in an early story, “The Concentration City”: “Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal.” In the even more crowded “Billennium” (1961), people live in cubicles four 4 meters square; a selling point for such Lilliputian real estate is “access to the staircase.”
“Drowned Giant, The”: The titular corpse washes up on shore. The patient, perfect, eight-page description of the body and its fate forms the dreamlike core of this collection, as dense as myth and as palpable as tomorrow.
“End-Game”: Like any writer worth his salt, Ballard’s openers deny you the opportunity to look elsewhere. This story, with its traces of Borges, Beckett, Nabokov and Kafka, begins: “After his trial they gave Constantin a villa, an allowance and an executioner.” Ballard simply unpacks that simple sentence, the story a marvel of mortal inevitability.
Genius: In “The Comsat Angels” (1968), Ballard blurs reality by using his own name (something he would do in the brilliant, unsettling “Crash”). “James” describes reluctantly signing on to a TV documentary project about child prodigies. Why, he wonders, do we never hear what these gifted youngsters do later in life? Cynicism gives way to a startling conspiracy.
Index: “Collected Stories” has an index, but it appears about 200 pages before the end of the book. As the sole surviving portion of an allegedly extant memoir by a doctor-turned-religion-founder named Henry Rhodes Hamilton, this index is Ballard stripped of his flair, pure juxtaposition. What to make of the cryptic entries " Lancaster, Mrs. Burt,” or “Inchon, Korea, HRH observes landings with Gen. MacArthur, 348"?
Jukebox: The protagonist of “The Terminal Beach” (1964) wanders a nuke-test no man’s land. At some sort of biological lab, “large charts of mutated chromosomes” catch his fancy. “Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke-box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.”
Kennedy, John F.: Using Alfred Jarry’s “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” as a template, in 1966 Ballard wrote “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” in the hopes that “a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation” than the Warren Report.
Language: His similes click with Wodehouse-like perfection: “All were written in the same hectoring tone, at once minatory and obscure,” says a narrator of his neighbor’s poetry, “like the oracular deliriums of an insane witch.” A weird-beard astronomer “resembled a Mormon patriarch or the homespun saint of some fervent evangelical community.” Ballard can bejewel anything: Sleep is “that archaic sump”; a pedestrian traffic jam (in the overpopulated world of “Billennium”) leaves one’s “body blue with bruises.” The whole book bristles with felicities.
“Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown”: In which every word of a single, self-reflexive sentence (“A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,’ recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration”) sprouts a paragraph-long footnote. Each plot-thickening annotation blurs the author-subject divide, so that the structural breakdown reflects the mental one.
Psychiatry: Ballard studied medicine at Oxford and had ambitions to become a psychiatrist. “You know, Andrew, like everyone else my real vocation was to be a psychiatrist,” says a character in “The Venus Hunters.” “I spend so long analyzing my motives I’ve no time left to act.” The same story proposes that “just as the sea was a universal image of the unconscious, so space was nothing less than an image of psychosis and death.”
“Questionnaire, Answers to a”: From the monosyllabic No. 28 (“No”) to the suggestive No. 77 (“Prince Andrew. Repeatedly”) to the alarming No. 83 (“Smith & Wesson short-barrel thirty eight”), a series of responses to unseen questions results in a tense, funny and surprising tale.
Reagan, Ronald: It’s unlikely this newspaper will print the title of Ballard’s most infamous stories, but Googling “J.G. Ballard” and " Ronald Reagan” will tell you what you need to know. As this country continues its Reagan worship, this 1968 story remains truly shocking, scatological, chilling and hilarious, reproducing the affectless drone of the medical study to perpetrate a psychological dissection of the body politic. (Printable example: “Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tonus and musculature associated with homo-erotic behaviour.”) Twenty years later, in “The Secret History of World War 3" (1988), updates on Reagan’s health, from blood pressure to bowel movements, dominate the airwaves, "[t]o complete the identification of President and TV screen -- a consummation of which his political advisors had dreamed for so long.”
Two copies: Halfway through my reading of “The Complete Stories,” another copy arrived. I put one in my study and the other on the dining room table, each book held open by means of a cradle constructed of smaller books stacked to each side. Shuttling from one copy to the other in the course of the day had a curious effect, so that at one point Reader A gravitated toward the stories that appeared in “Vermilion Sands,” while Reader B turned to Ballard’s more aggressive formal experiments. Notes made by Reader A in the endpapers of Copy A proved unhelpful when Reader B was with Book B, with the result that Reader B would make similar observations in his copy. It was not entirely clear who was thinking what. In the diabolical, shuffled-cards-of-identity tale “The Sudden Afternoon,” a man named Elliott remembers his childhood in India -- only to remember that he never lived in India, and that the notion must have been put in his head by a news article. Or do the false memories go in the other direction too?
Vermilion Sands: “Prima Belladonna” (1956), the first story here, is just one of several comic, mind-bending, futuristic tales of creativity and its absurd mutations, set in and around the art-fatigued town of Vermilion Sands. In “Venus Smiles,” a sonic sculpture that has been commissioned as a work of public art (then scrapped because of the din it makes) has its revenge; in “Studio 5, The Stars,” poets no longer commune with the oversoul but simply plug commands into a VT (Verse-Transcriber) set. Pure, weird pleasure.
X: “The seven satellites drew nearer, and Bridgman glanced up at them cursorily. They were disposed in a distinctive but unusual pattern resembling the Greek letter x, a limp cross, a straight lateral member containing four capsules more or less in line ahead -- Connolly, Tkachev, Merril, and Maiakovski -- bisected by three others forming with Tkachev an elongated Z -- Pokrovski, Woodward and Brodisnek. The pattern had been variously identified as a hammer and sickle, an eagle, a swastika, and a dove, as well as a variety of religious and runic emblems, but all these were being defeated by the advancing tendency of the older capsules to vaporize.” -- From “The Cage of Sand” (1962)
Yes: In the relentless consumer world of “The Subliminal Man,” a giant ad is vandalized and revealed to be flashing the words “BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW,” followed by “YES” 10 times in a row.
Zero: “The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard” offers weeks of surprise and pleasure, but it is also one of the most dangerous books you can read. Smuggled between its covers is a 50-year-old account by a disgruntled office worker who discovers that the grim fates he pens about his colleagues come true. (I’ll conceal the title; “Zero” is its last word.) He hits upon a way to preserve this “primacy of the pen over the sword”: Write about his discovery of this fatal power, publish it as fiction in a popular format . . . and catalog the names of his victims, unsuspecting readers like you and me.
Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of “Personal Days: A Novel.” His Astral Weeks column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.