Wednesday 21 April 2010

JG Ballard: 'The Crystal World'


(Jonathan Cape Ltd hardback 1966
Panther Paperback 1968 ISBN 586-02419-0-2 – 6/- 30p)

Oddly, some of the scenes for the Zoltan Korda movie ‘Sanders Of The River’ (1935), supposedly featuring Nigeria, were filmed at Shepperton, Surrey, a location that figures highly in JG Ballard’s personal life-mythology. He lived in a small semi-detached house in Shepperton for close on half a century, from 1960 until his death in 2009. The Korda film, taken from an Edgar Wallace story, features RG Sanders, a British colonial district official played by Leslie Banks. In ‘The Crystal World’ JG Ballard’s central character is Dr Edward Sanders, a name that is surely more than just coincidental. He interacts with apostate priest Father Balthus, who seems to take his name from the Polish/French artist whose fetishistic eroticism bears a disturbingly surreal edge. ‘The Crystal World’ (1966) was JG Ballard’s fourth novel, and the last of his ‘quiet apocalypse’ quartet, following ‘The Wind From Nowhere’ (1961), ‘The Drowned World’ (1962) and ‘The Burning World’ (1964) – and on the brink of his New Wave experimental work commencing with ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1969). As such, it contains elements of both literary phases, although interestingly, Chapter Six ‘The Crash’ anticipates the title of his most controversial 1973 novel.

Dr Sanders voyages up the African Matarre River into ‘the affected zone’ towards Mont Royal, in answer to a mysterious letter from Suzanne & Max Clair, friends from the Fort Isabella leper hospital. He’s lured by the distant presence of Suzanne – with whom he’d had an unresolved affair. Her presence hanging ‘like a baleful planet over the jungle’, like the luminous Echo satellite he sees in the night sky. His journey is hindered by vague official obstruction, deliberate obfuscation, and rumours of either a strange virus or political instability. While he is accompanied by the devious white-suited Ventress, who contrasts with the black garb of Father Balthus, in much the way that white bandages contrast on black bodies, in the ‘fundamental distinction between light and dark’. What passes for the SF content doesn’t kick in properly until at least page.66 of the Panther edition, with its talk of ‘distant galaxies efflorescent’ and Sanders entering ‘a world where the normal laws of the physical universe were suspended’. So is this a disaster novel? Of sorts. In so far as the African rain-forest is undergoing a process of transformation, with allusions to areas of the Florida Everglades and the Pripet Marshes in the USSR also crystallising. But this is only part of it.

A bewildering array of highly-imaginative disasters have been visited upon the world since the earliest days of the genre. There’s little new about that. As long ago as 1826 Mary Shelley wrote about the Last Man in a desolate plague-ravaged world. In 1913 Arthur Conan Doyle envisaged atmospheric poisoning as the Earth passed through a Purple cosmic dust-cloud. And that’s long before you even get to novels of lunar disintegration, the death of grass, universal blindness or blockbuster movies about extinction-level asteroids. Where Ballard was breaking new ground was that previous writers had focused on the heroic resistance to disaster, or the ingenuity of its stoic survivors. If you want that kind of tidy adventure plot, you won’t find it here. What defines Ballard is that his protagonists appear to conspire with the disasters overwhelming their world, rather than fighting against them. Elsewhere he approvingly quotes Joseph Conrad’s challenge ‘immerse yourself in the most destructive element – and swim!’ (introduction to the chapter on ‘Cataclysms And Dooms’ in Brian Ash’s ‘The Visual Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’). Ballard later wrote a book about Salvador Dali, an artist who also liquefies reality into strangely disturbing mutations. And, as Ballard’s Sanders Of The River travels into his heart of darkness, finding a drowned man with a crystallised arm, and continuing in an amphibious craft, towards the Clair’s hospital with its absent patients, he is also entering a Symbolist painting, a visual transfiguration of Africa into literary surrealism. Into a recognisably Ballardian landscape of dislocations, ruined plantation houses, sudden reversals, and unsettling perversity. A photoshopping distortion of the virtual world by cutting-up and juxtaposing its elements. There are hints that Sanders’ reasons for serving in the leper hospital were not entirely humanitarian, but that ‘he might be more attracted to the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented’, again prefiguring the perverse ‘Crash’ preoccupation with mutilation. Ballard even alludes to Arnold Bocklin’s ‘Island Of The Dead’ as if to underscore the painterly quality of his literary vision. While another character, the speedboat owner Aragon, shares his name with surrealist poet Louis.

Lost in the magical terrain, with Ventress cat-and-mousing with Thorensen the mine-owner, competing for a languidly tubercular porcelain beauty called Serena, the soft detonations happen as much in Sanders’ head as they do in the external world he passes through. There’s some token rationalisation, about the foliage extracting minerals from the soil. Later, more explicitly, the crystalising phenomenon is said to be caused by ‘an actual proliferation of the sub-atomic identity of all matter’. Techno-babble of a kind? Yes – ‘it’s as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light’. Closer. Eventually, the culprit is identified as the ‘Hubble Effect’, an aspect of the theory of anti-matter. The mutual annihilation of colliding positively and negatively charged galaxies in deep space results in a depletion of the universal time-store, a leaking of anti-time, as there is of anti-matter. So that explains it, then? But in simpler terms, the vitrifying forest is a kind of slow cancerous metamorphosis into static dreamscapes of crystalline beauty. A landscape without time. Not so much a literal or pseudo-scientific phenomenon, as an artistic one. A game of prose. After all, both forms – art and fiction, have the potential to mess with perception and preconceptions. And Ballard’s intention seems to be to induce a sense of post-traumatic trance, a smooth Guernica of the mind. When Sanders encounters a bizarre tableau of frozen bodies fused into one another and into the jewelled forest, embalmed in a glacier of crystal, it’s an image of pure visual surrealism. As much as the crystallised crocodile in its ‘armour of light’ with its ‘mouth choked with jewels’.
For Balthus, his confused faith sees the world ‘transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of space and time’, the immense jewelled cross in his empty church anticipating the process, yet the unique quality of diamonds also arresting and countering it. The image is enforced by the blunt symbolism of Sanders carrying the jewelled cross before him through the transmogrified forest, melting and healing its elements. Until finally, having extricated himself from the ‘zone’, he considers a future in which a third of the world’s cities will be petrified within the coming decade, as Miami has already become. Then the process extending out into the solar system, halting the sun and planets in their courses. He opts to return into the crystallised forest and become a part of it.

The ambiguities of ‘The Crystal World’ set up contradictions that predict Ballard’s sixties ‘non-linear’ work for ‘Ambit’ and ‘New Worlds’. It is less a novel constructed of such familiar elements as plot, character motivation, and resolution, instead his art-prose runs like wild mercury, with quivers of bright undulation that shimmer and ripple. Like Father Balthus himself, the fiction is ‘entirely genuine, whatever that term meant and whatever its limits’.


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