Monday, November 14, 2011

When Worlds Collide

I really enjoy it when my favourite authors turn their hands to non-fiction. Something about the combination of journalistic brevity and literary prose, together with technical accuracy and novelistic storytelling, places the writing at the sweet centre of a very scholastic Venn Diagram. One of my favourite exponents of the form is JG Ballard, whose essays and reviews form the basis of an exemplary collection published in 1996 called A User's Guide to the Millennium.

The articles are taken from a wide variety of different publications: The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday, Time Out, New Statesman, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, New Worlds, Vogue and The Woman Journalist – each replete with their own editorial policy and apparent ideology. Read a newspaper or a magazine regularly and you quickly begin to recognise familiar positions and a dogmatic adherence to a certain point of view, to the extent that, after a couple of months, you could probably draft an accurate parody of a typical news story without needing to open the paper. I defy anyone to do the same with Ballard.

Ever wondered what the master exponent of Late Capitalist disaster fiction and social satire made of 20th century icons such as Coca-Cola, Walt Disney and Howard Hughes; Salvador Dali, Casablanca and Richard Feynman; Andy Warhol, the Vietnam War and Star Wars; Shanghai, F. Scott Fitzgerald and David Lynch; or even Nancy Reagan, Elvis Presley and Sigmund Freud? Every single name evokes a world with which to conjure, but when the name of Ballard is thrown into the mix, new and intriguing possibilities begin to emerge, darker but somehow more lucid and more stimulating.

Ballard eschews conventionality, received wisdom and established orthodoxies at every turn. He has no firm political or religious affiliations. As a writer he is no one but himself and regardless of whether you agree or disagree, it impossible to ignore the sense of an independent mind, puzzling out new approaches and affirming new ideas about (sometimes) familiar topics in precise, declarative sentences. Care to guess what Ballard thinks about global branding giant and sugar water seller Coca-Cola? Any Marxist or anti-American might decry the "malign geopolitical influence" that has been exercised by the corporation but in Ballard's more sanguine view the "mind-numbing" efforts of the marketing men dedicated to selling the image of the world's "most refreshing burp" are much more interesting; representing a "certain kind of American cheerfulness, not to everyone's taste but hard to resist”. And what about that glamorous billionaire playboy Howard Hughes - The Richest Man in the World - an aviation pioneer who made movies, dated Hollywood starlets, designed aircraft for the US military and eventually went crackers, holing himself up in a sound-proof room atop of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas?

I admire Hughes most of all for the casual way in which he closed the door on the world. Lying back on the couch with the blinds drawn, popping pills and worrying about fad diets while watching the 170th re-run of Ice Station Zebra, reminds me in many ways of life today in the Thames Valley. Hughes may well have been more in touch with reality than anyone - When Worlds Collide - Keyword description


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