Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Complete Ballard

Complete (by tim2ubh)
Arriving on my desk with an entirely appropriate crash, comes the new US edition of The Complete Stories of JG Ballard, courtesy of the publishers WW Norton.

An expanded version of the Complete Short Stories, published in the UK by Flamingo in 2001 and now a collector's item, the new volume weighs in at something over 1200 pages and 98 stories. It dwarfs the comparable tome for, say, John Cheever (whose best-known story, 'The Swimmer', is not exactly un-Ballardian).

It's also a monumental work in the literal sense - the book, and its marketing, seems designed to establish Ballard's reputation in the US, where he's more often regarded as a proto-cyberpunk oddity rather than the major literary visionary he latterly became in Europe (the UK lagging somewhat behind France, of course).

Within that unfortunately 80s-styled dustjacket sits everything from all the previous short story collections (apart the bulk of The Atrocity Exhibition, the nature of which as novel or short story collection remains moot for Ballardian scholars), plus a few rarities such as 'The Recognition' (from Dangerous Visions, 1967) and the handful of pieces published since 1990's War Fever collection.

The small number of more recent stories neatly illustrates the decline of the market for short stories, something that Ballard bemoans in his brief introduction republished from the UK edition. The majority of these stories date from the 1960s, appearing in titles from Amazing Stories to Playboy, as the Seer of Shepperton raised his family on the fruits of his restless typewriter.

Many readers (but not myself) rate Ballard's short stories above his novels. It's true that many of the novels resemble extended (arguably, over-extended) short stories rather than the conventional plots of the 'Hampstead novel' (Ballard's own contemptuous phrase for the works of most of his literary contemporaries). Later novels did take their narrative structure from the crime genre, but to create satirical and psychological why-dunnits rather than boring who-dunnits, and overlaid with the near-hallucinatory repetitions and riffs that characterised his more avant-garde masterpieces such as Crash. It's the literary equivalent of the best Krautrock.

By contrast, the short stories are purest pop, offering the most concentrated yet accessible doses of Ballard. The vision and the language are unmistakeable, from the first line of 'Prima Belladonna', written over half a century ago:
I first met Jane Ciracyclides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years...

The US Complete Stories is actually more complete than the UK Complete Short Stories, but is still not really complete. Unlike the original edition, it does include the minor (and slightly re-titled) 'The Secret Autobiography of J.G. B******' (first published in the French-language Etoile Mecanique in 1982) and Ballard's last published short story, 'The Dying Fall' (Interzone, 1996), as well as 'The Ultimate City' (Low-Flying Aircraft, 1976) which was included in the original single-volume UK edition but not the later two-volume version.

But there's still no 'Journey Across a Crater' (New Worlds, 1970, which Ballard was apparently never happy with), 'Neil Armstrong Remembers His Journey to the Moon' (Interzone, 1991), or various 'surgical fictions' and experimental pieces from Ambit, New Worlds and elsewhere. Nor (understandably) is there Ballard's first actual published story, the Hemingwayesque 'The Violent Noon', with which he won a university short story competition at the tender age of 20. Completists should refer to Rick McGrath's exhaustive (and slightly illicit) Uncollected J.G. Ballard.

But this is still a pretty much essential volume for anyone less obsessive than Rick or myself. It should certainly play a major role in consolidating Ballard's rep in the US - I hope mostly among people who will read it for the pure pleasure of his writing, as well as those in the man's detested 'over-professionalized academia'.

The main question for me is what gets priority on my shelf - this comprehensive volume, or my set of original anthologies, excavated from secondhand shops across the country over the years, all somewhat battered but redolent of their own times.
More than complete (by tim2ubh)

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Blogger robin said...

I had no idea "The Recognition" was so obscure, collected only in the UK complete stories (second volume in paperback). It is a story I am so familiar with as to assume it was always readily available.

This collection could not indeed have been "complete" without "The Ultimate City", but I can find no excuse for omitting "Journey Across a Crater", "Neil Armstrong Remembers His Journey to the Moon" and the surgical fictions. They are as important to his oeuvre as any other works.

As for the "short versus long" debate, there is no doubt in my mind that anything Ballard did in his novels he did better in his short fiction, the concentrated style suiting him better than rambling satires. I'm a fan of Krautrock (and also extended minimalist composition), but the comparison to "pop" music -- by which I assume you mean disposable radio fare and not music of the pop art movement -- breaks down. Read the first chapter of Crash then read the whole book. There is nothing in the remaining sections that was not done better in the first part, originally published as a self-sufficient entity. Ballard many times disparagingly referenced his own padding as something the market required.

Had Ballard continued in the same manner as The Atrocity Exhibition, with a series of "condensed novels" in place of conventional plotting, then I think he might have broken yet more ground. But most of his full-length books signal a retreat into the conventional after this high-water mark. Though, tellingly, his short works continued to challenge and inspire.

6:22 pm, August 06, 2009  
Blogger Tim Chapman said...

Thanks for the comments, Robin. My reference to pop certainly wasn't meant to be derogatory - a fine pop single is a lasting glory, whether it's 'Be my baby' or 'Anarchy in the UK' (or, perhaps more relevantly, 'Video killed the radio star' or 'Warm leatherette'), and can pack plenty into three minutes.
But I still like the full 15 minutes of 'Mother Sky', or an hour of 'Pink Lady Lemonade'.

9:41 am, August 07, 2009  

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