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“We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature. We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos. We believe in equality but hate the underclass. We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death. We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal.” JG Ballard, Millennium People

Almost contemporaneous with JG Ballard’s arrival in the world of fiction, the world was changed forever when a young, sulky kid from Memphis, with a cool, deliberately deconstructed quiff, and dropdead gorgeous looks, created endemic teenage hysteria through his electrifying performances at the Louisiana Hayride, the Opry, and in Tupelo at the Mississippi-Alabama between the years 1954-56. Both Elvis Presley and JG Ballard, in their own acutely individual ways, were responsible for opening dynamic gateways into the radical social and sexual revolutions of the last half of the 20th century. If Elvis was singularly responsible for endorsing black music to a white audience, then Ballard, in his own way, subverted the literary genre of science fiction into a novel that placed the possibilities for the future directly in the present. What Ballard realised before any of his contemporaries, was that the technological advances of the time had made science fiction a reality. Ballard’s early novels such as The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World, written in the 60s, full of hallucinatory ecological scenarios, were the impetus behind what was to explode in the early 70s into the creation of a series of controversially cult-acclaimed novels. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974) were written with such filmic clarity that it appears as if Ballard, in the course of writing, is also directing his own shoot of the novel in progress. Ballard’s assimilation by the underground as an unlikely counterculture icon began with the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970, at a time when the similarly reclusive, and by now, increasingly obese Elvis Presley had no option but to return to the live circuit, after a decade’s absence from touring, in order to reaffirm his presence as the King in the face of America’s British pop invasion. Elvis personified the idea of the American Dream, the poor boy who got rich, despite his socially deprived beginnings. Ballard has made a fiction out of the modern world that Elvis helped create, and in the process has touched upon and anticipated every significant futuristic component that we have lived to see become a reality, in the world of apocalyptically dystopian politics of the past 50 years. Elvis and Ballard plugged into the mains of their times and let rip. Ballard’s first high in the morning, during this period of optimal creativity, was an 11am slug of scotch that acted as the necessary trigger to fire up his brain to begin writing. His quotient of 1,000 words a day, either handwritten or punched out on an old Olivetti typewriter, is a routine that has held good for the last 50 years, in which he has recreated the present through the imaginative possibilities provided by his neuroscientific take on fiction. “Imagination,” always his creative instructor, Ballard states, “is the shortest route between any two conceivable points, and more than equal to any physical rearrangement of the brain’s functions.” Presley doubtless would have conceived of the pop song as the fastest way to get from A to B in 2 mins 50 seconds of high-octane emotionally charged energy. But while Ballard was slugging scotch as the necessary juice to stimulate his creative energies, Elvis was self-medicating with downers and uppers in a form of regimented polypharmacy aimed at cushioning him from the components of reality and suffering he found intolerable. Ballard was, by the early 1970s, starting to come into his own, and using William Burroughs as a role-model for shocking the reader into an amoral parallel universe in which technological resources are downloaded into the human genes. He was responsible with the writing of Crash for placing the British novel 100 years ahead of his constrained naturalistic contemporaries. Ballard’s definition of a car crash as a moment of extreme erotic crisis, could arguably be

construed as the verbal equivalent of the sort of sonic distortion Jimi Hendrix had succeeded in detonating into his amps in the late 60s. At the time of writing Crash, Ballard in an interview had spoken of the erotic potential of being involved in a head-on collision. “The car crash,” he conjectured, “is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases, the two coincide. I think there’s something about the automobile crash that taps all kinds of barely recognised impulses in people’s minds and imaginations. It’s a mistake to adopt a purely rational attitude towards events like the crash; one can’t simply say that this is a meaningless and horrific tragedy. It is that, but it’s other things as well, and in Crash I’ve tried to find out exactly what that is... It’s a massive collision of the central nervous system, a total explosion of the senses.” Presley with his love of big American cars – finned pink Cadillacs, chromed Lincolns and buffed Chevrolets – viewed cars not as symbols of auto-destruction, but more as symbols of the wealth that surrounded his privileged status, their bodywork representing the expansive American 20th-century dream. And while sex on the backseat was part of every American teenager’s liberating experience, nobody before Ballard had ever thought to fetishise the car as an erotically constructed tool that on impact, distorted itself into a supra-orgasmic sexual geometry, exciting to the spectator of the accident, as well as to the car’s impacted occupants. Nor had any novelist before Ballard employed so specifically clinical a scientific vocabulary to describe events of interiorised reality. Ballard’s two years as a medical student at Cambridge provided him with a scientific terminology that he rapidly saw as essential to any novelist living in the technology-saturated urban landscapes of the late 20th century. By mid-afternoon in the 1970s, the contents of Ballard’s bottle of Merlot had diminished to a neck choker’s width of dark red wine, which on top of the whisky had, by the late day, shifted his consciousness directly into the altered landscape about which he was writing. When the imagination is in top gear, it goes beyond the present and bootstraps its findings into the future. It’s this shift out of time that creates the visionary: the artist who jumps one step ahead of the present. For Ballard, no apology was needed. “Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer’s role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.” 11 hours behind Ballard’s time, it was 6am in Memphis, and Elvis, distressed by a variety of sleep disorders, was waiting for a sealed envelope of downers he and his aides called a “drug attack” to knock him out. Natural sleep hadn’t formed part of Elvis’s daily life since his mother’s death (he refused ever to repair the cracked glass at Graceland, which his mother, Gladys, fell through on the day before she was taken to the Methodist Hospital in Memphis, where she died), and the cocktail of brain-numbing tranquillisers on which he was dependent, was calculated to induce artificial sleep for a maximum of five or six hours. Each morning, Elvis was given a quotient of amphetamines to help jump-start him into the day. As he grew older, and progressively more disillusioned by the serious challenge to his uncontested popularity, Elvis conscripted almost every known prescribed pharmaceutical into his chemical regime. He used Dexies, Dilaudid, Codeine, Amytal, Carbrital, Nembutal, Seconal, Placidyl, Quaalude, and Valium on a regular basis, the chemicals daily churning over in his gut like the impacted tyre-treads on an American highway. Ballard, despite drinking regularly as a means to compensate for his solitary writing life, was dependent on no other drug but imagination as the source of his creativity. He had performed the perfect disappearing trick. He was invisible to his readers, and while he may have empathised in his work with iconic archetypes like James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, JF Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the astronaut heroes of the Apollo 111 mission, he was free, without the need for a pronounced personal image, to infiltrate the collective psyche, and through his gifts as a novelist, tweak the violent psychopathology of his times into an art every bit as valid to youth, as the urgent and continually mutating expressions of rock music. Ballard interpreted the

178 AnOtherMan

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