February 27, 2013

Hello America (#74)

Hello America by J.G. Ballard

What I said then:

I love J.G. Ballard. I'm determined that before I die I will read everything he ever wrote. This one will be next, I suppose.

What I say now:

Yep, still love him.

Ballard began his career in science-fiction (though writing much more wonky, arty sci-fi than could normally be found in the early sixties), then went through this incredible period in the seventies where he fused his sci-fi themes with everyday (but off-kilter) settings and plots; The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise are the books I'm thinking of. Hello America came out in 1981, just after that golden period and just before his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (which, in its way, holds the key to all of his work), and it marked a brief return to the dystopias of his earlier works.

A hundred years in the future, an energy crisis has left North America a barren wasteland, the deserts of the southwest U.S.A. having spread to cover the entire continent. With severe oil rationing over the rest of the globe, most technologies have ground to a stand-still, or even devolved to mimic earlier, pre-Industrial Revolution times. A team of research scientists --- and one stowaway --- who are all descended from American refugees, land their ship at the edge of the dunes of New York City and set out on horseback to explore. Lo and behold, they find that the American Dream isn't quite as dead as they had imagined ...

If I'm being honest with myself, this is a fairly minor entry in Ballard's canon. He is usually at his best when describing one or two obsessive loners, driven characters who dance around each other under the influence of whatever bizarro concept he's dreamed up this time. The size of the cast here feels limiting, rather than the opposite: we're introduced to several scientists, and the stowaway, and the research ship's captain, yet because they all share similar motives, none of them emerges from the pack to become a distinct focal point for the book. It seems Ballard felt this too: there's a chapter in the middle in which he uses one character's diary entries to skip over a period of about three months, and incidentally to kill off a couple of people as well, just to keep things from getting too unwieldy.

Another flaw is the hamminess of a lot of his satire. Sure, I'm writing from thirty years in the future (and having studied postmodernism ad nauseam at university) but giving the 'native Americans' (those who never abandoned the continent, and have become Bedouin-like drifters through the desert) brand names for names? It's just trite, and silly ... and the kind of thing I'd have come up with while I was at university. When Heinz, Xerox, GM and Pepsodent turn up I'll admit, I was a little disappointed in the obviousness on show.

Also, setting an apocalyptic showdown in Las Vegas? Again, kind of obvious. Of course that mirage of a city, the decadent neon heart of America's love affair with everything tacky and shiny and loud, is a perfect setting for a book that's all about the core of American culture, but it just feels ... done. Hello America followed Stephen King's The Stand by just a few years, and surely Ballard was aware of it. I dunno, again, I was just a little disappointed that Ballard, whose imagination is normally off-the-charts original, was reduced to reproducing elements I'd seen before. He did it well, sure, but I come to his novels expecting to have my brain exploded. Didn't happen this time around.

Almost the most interesting aspect of the book for me was in a short interview with Ballard that the publishers have included in the back. In it, Ballard talks about his childhood in 1930's Shanghai as being more influenced by American culture than British, and how his return to Britain after the war had it seeming dismal and dull by comparison. His infatuation with, and critiques of, American culture are ever-present in his work, and that little bit of detail shed a lot of light on novels of his that I'd read previously. Even when they're set in England, they're about aspects of our culture that we'd usually regard as American: cars, and TV, and advertising, and Hollywood mythologising. Having glimpsed an American(ish) culture as a boy, then being forced into exile from it in ration-starved England, Ballard's obsessions become more understandable. In some ways those obsessions reach their apogee (if not their finest expression) in Hello America, and for that alone it's worth a read for a Ballard nut like myself.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker
books to go: 71

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