Saturday, 28 March 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: J.G. Ballard Part I

Hey you. Yeah, you. I can see right into the suburbanization of your soul.

Card Drawn: 8 of Spades.

J.G. Ballard wrote a lot during his lifetime and I mean A LOT. This massive collection of short-stories is a staggering 1,200+ pages and is bound to give me a hernia if I continue to lug it around for much longer. Not to brag or anything but while the goal for this challenge is to read 52 short-stories for the year, it seems that I have already surpassed that number by a wide margin. Heck, I've read 14 stories so far from this collection alone, which incidentally, has barely put a dent into this behemoth. My initial idea for this challenge when it came to anthologies was to pick one story at random to review, which seems more than sufficient. But then I got to would people know which are the best stories to read and which ones to avoid if I only review one story from an entire collection? It goes without saying that writing a review for every short-story would be a daunting and impossible task (I have enough on my plate already). However, 'mini-reviews' could very well be the solution to this problem. I am not sure how this will work exactly, but I am going to give it a shot here. Instead of merely writing one review to represent an entire collection, I may decide to write mini-reviews instead--like here for instance--updating them periodically. At least that way people can decide which stories interest them the most instead of going through the arduous process of finding out for themselves. I will be doing all the heavy leg-work here and perhaps it will all be in vain because people might not even care, regardless. Still, I welcome the challenge and more than anything, it will prove to be mostly beneficial to myself--keeping a record of every single short-story read along with my thoughts on them. Here we go...

Prima Belladonna (1956): One of his earliest stories and it clearly shows by the disjointed writing and flat characters. Sluggish and frustratingly inexplicable, the narrative feels hastily constructed; a slapdash of disparate fragments that lack any forceful resonance as intended by the author. Not that a short-story must rely on a well-turning plot but ambiguity does not always result in profundity. Have you ever seen the movie Little Shop of Horrors starring Rick Moranis with those alien plants that eat people? This short-story reminded me of that wacky 80's film except Prima Belladonna is not a black comedy; the only similarity here are the mutated plants except in Ballard's story they produce music (comprising mostly of classical or opera) and aren't hell-bent on eating people. A famous opera singer becomes infatuated with one particular species of plant (photosynthesis-iality? Yes, I just coined that term.) and well...let's just say things get pretty weird. Considering Ballard's fondness for classical music, I am surprised he didn't include the 'Flower Duet' from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Har-har-har. Sorry, I couldn't resist.  2 stars.

Venus Smiles (1957): Similar to Prima Belladonna, this story takes place in Ballard's futuristic world of Vermillion Sands, an isolated beach community that bears some resemblance to southern California. The author's love for classical music is evident once again but there are no singing plants this time, instead it is a "sonic sculpture" designed by a famous female artist. Going by her reputation, the arts committee blindly commissions her statue to be placed in the center of the town square but the unveiling is met with disapproval by the majority of the townspeople since it turns out to be a ghastly construction of metal parts. On top of that, it releases a high-pitched wailing sound that is soon driving everyone mental. The committee has no choice but to remove it and the head chairman, Mr. Hamilton, is left as the sole proprietor. Instead of sending the statue to the dump or to be melted down, he brings it home and places it in his garden. All is swell until the statue begins to come alive, grows exponentially and producing beautiful music...pretty cool. The title of the story is likely a reference to the famous Greek Venus De Milo statue. Ballard doesn't focus on idolatry as one might initially suspect; rather, he is more concerned with artistic posterity but in a very bizarre way. Great ending. 3 stars.
The Drowned Giant (1964): Ballard puts his own spin on Swift's Gulliver's Travels when he encounters the Lilliputians except there is a reversal: the perspective is from the little people (humans) who discover a dead giant that washes upon the beach. Everyone is fascinated by this strange monstrosity; soon becoming a popular  tourist attraction and a jungle-gym where people climb all over it for amusement. Steeped more in the fantasy genre than Science-Fiction, this story boasts an interesting premise but turns out to be quite vapid and dull. Skip it. 2 star.

The Dead Astronaut (1968): 'Relic hunters' of a by-gone space era and unresolved grief collide in one of Ballard's more emotionally resonant stories. A couple is in search of the mummified remains of an astronaut still in orbit that is bound to crash down to Earth in a few days. The wife is far more keen on the excursion than her current husband, since she is still haunted by the past, a one time romantic fling with with the dead astronaut that has left her emotionally scarred. She hopes that retrieving whatever is left of his body that burned up in a freak accident during a space-launch years ago will bring closure, allowing the couple to move on with their lives. A bunch of ragged brigands living in the dunes of an abandoned space port, collecting antique scrap metal and dead astronaut remains to sell on the black market is an interesting set-up. However, Ballard is not so much interested in character and narrative; rather, he's more of a surrealist type of writer, his best stories focusing on distorted realities, bizarre imagery, generating feelings of paranoia and mental distress; a predilection for centering upon characters experiencing hallucinogenic psychotic breakdowns. Hence, The Dead Astronaut is an anomaly--it is Ballardian in tone but not in literary motifs. 3 stars.

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974): Feels inspired by Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Is Ballard making some kind of anti-war statement here? Maybe. Characters undergoing severe mental breakdowns is a familiar trope in Ballard's work, which shows up again here. An ex-pilot is a patient at a convalescent clinic at an abandoned air-field base. It's less of a mental facility and more of a vacation spot; he even gets his own private beach-house. As the title indicates, he dreams of getting back into the cockpit to fly to this tropical paradise known as Wake Island which is odd, since he is already staying at a luxurious resort with warm weather in the first place. It's not as if the doctor's are treating him poorly or spends his day in an isolated cell wearing a straight-jacket. On the contrary, there are no barbed wire; he can wander around or drive anywhere he wants on the premises. He spends most of his day digging up a B-17 bomber buried in the sand dunes. He befriends another female pilot and convinces her to join him on his journey to Wake Island once they can fix her plane. The incongruous and jumbled narrative strives for profundity but is hindered by its absurdity. An innocuous story at best. 2 stars. 



  1. Well, even though none of these stories were stellar reads, they certainly sound interesting.

    I like the idea of mini-reviews. I used this method for Montaigne's essays and it's worked well because Montaigne rambles and gives more information than necessary. However, I'm using mini-reviews for C.S. Lewis' Of Other Worlds, a book of essays which I'm reading at the moment, and I find that it doesn't work as well. Each of Lewis' sentences are meaningful, so it's really hard to condense them because I feel like I'm missing sharing so much valuable information. Sigh!

    BTW, have you finished reading The Man Who Was Thursday? I was so thrilled to see that you were reading it and was hoping to compare notes.

  2. I am picking stories at random from this collection and have stumbled upon some excellent ones recently. I'll provide write-ups of them in due time.

    Yep, mini-reviews suit me very well here since after-all, these are short-stories. But you're right, it might not work well with specific stories or texts since it will be difficult to do them justice in a condensed format.

    Sorry, I had to put 'The Man Who Was Thursday' on hold because I was reading two other novels at the same time (one of them was The Voyage Out) and it was too overwhelming for me to juggle them all in my head. I am more of a one-novel-at-a-time kinda guy and find it increasingly difficult to multi-task in my reading. You seem to pull it off quite easily.

    Don't worry, I do plan on returning to the Chesterton novel sometime in the next few weeks.

  3. Sounds like a great short story title was wasted on "Prima Belladonna." Thats a real shame. :-)

    I'm like you with tons of anthologies in my place, of which I've read about 20% of the stories (that maybe a generous estimate). I'll be doing the Deal Me In project until I die... :-)

    1. I know right, such a great title. Have you read anything by Ballard perhaps?

      I'm loving this challenge dude so thanks again for hosting it. I agree, the amount of short-stories that I want to read is overwhelming.

    2. I don't think I've read any Ballard before - maybe a stray anthologized story but nothing since I've been blogging (about five years now). He's on my radar now. Thanks. :-)

      I'm glad you're enjoying Deal Me In. It's been a fun way for me to instill the habit of reading at least one short story a week, so much so that now it's almost second nature. I also like how reading about other participants' stories give me ideas for future reading. I've seen a couple comments already from people saying "I'll have to put that in my deck for next year," etc. which makes me feel good. :-). Thanks for participating!