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The Reading Life: J.G. Ballard's stormy weather

Jgballarddrownedworld
This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

"Los Angeles weather," Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay "Los Angeles Notebook," "is the weather of ... apocalypse," but late last week, as rain descended on the normally arid summer landscape of Southern California, it was not Didion about whom I found myself thinking, but J.G. Ballard.

Ballard, who died in 2009, is perhaps best known for investigating the erotic possibilities of violence in a world anesthetized by consumerism and conformity. Early in his career, though, he wrote a series of novels ("The Drought," "The Drowned World," "The Wind From Nowhere," "The Crystal World") that address environmental themes.

From the perspective of the present, it's tempting to call Ballard prescient — these novels all appeared in the early-to-mid-1960s — yet as Martin Amis notes in an introduction to the new 50th anniversary edition of "The Drowned World," that's something of a fixed game. "[F]ictional divination," Amis writes, "will always be hopelessly haphazard. The unfolding of world historical events is itself haphazard (and therefore unaesthetic), and 'the future' is in a sense defined by its messy inscrutability."

"The Drowned World" is a perfect case in point: an apocalyptic novel, although its apocalypse is not human-made. In this world, rather, solar upheavals have triggered the melting of the polar ice caps, rendering Europe "a system of giant lagoons." For Kerans, the leader of an expedition to explore a flooded London, this raises all sorts of questions about survival and adaptability, and the protean, "archaic memories" of his dreams.

Here, we see many of Ballard's themes in embryo: the discontents of civilization, the intractability of the universe, the tenuous balance of the world. And yet, prescient or otherwise, he is also writing about the insignificance of humanity, which survives at the mercy of an environment that could turn against us at any time.

This is the hidden, primal fear provoked by climate change, and the reason, too, that last week's out-of-season storm felt unsettling, a sign (perhaps) of things to come.

"We should have got out years ago," Ballard writes. "All this detailed mapping of harbours for use in some hypothetical future is absurd. Even if the solar flares subside it will be ten years before there's any serious attempt to reoccupy these cities. ... The whole place is nothing but a confounded zoo."

— David L. Ulin

Photo: J.G. Ballard in 1988. Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 
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