Monday, 24 October 2016

The Terminal Beach

J.G. Ballard The Terminal Beach (1964)
I didn't get on very well with Ballard last time, finding Vermilion Sands to be kind of like reading one of those fucking awful David Hockney paintings of a Californian swimming pool. Having now read this one, I'm still not absolutely convinced about the guy, but the collection does at least have a little more in the way of texture. The Terminal Beach comprises twelve short stories - no shared narratives as with Vermilion Sands, although the beach theme reoccurs throughout and is specifically addressed in The Reptile Enclosure:

But I think the psychological role of the beach is much more interesting. The tide-line is a particularly significant area, a penumbral zone that is both of the sea and above it, forever half-immersed in the great time-womb. If you accept the sea as an image of the unconscious, then this beachward urge might be seen as an attempt to escape from the existential role of ordinary life and return to the universal time-sea...

So it's about thresholds, I guess, which makes sense given that Ballard writes at length about the future and just what the hell we're going to do when we get there, whether allegorically as with The Drowned Giant, or arguably more literally as with the story after which the collection is named - a thoroughly depressing portrait of life in the wake of environmental collapse. The surreal imagery, elegant prose, and general focus is such that you really don't have to regard Ballard as an author of science-fiction if you don't want to, and such categorisation seems mainly to acknowledge that it's simply a better fit than whatever else you might want to call it - as with Burroughs, Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, Will Self and others.

The people of Vermilion Sands led lives of bland Mediterranean luxury. Whilst there's not too much of that here, Ballard nevertheless writes with a slightly detached quality so that while we witness effects we do not directly experience them, excepting possibly the violence of the bloke who - from what I can work out - willingly has his eyes pecked out by gulls in The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon, apparently as some sort of Oedipal gesture which went way over my head. It's not that any of these stories lack emotional content, or that Ballard should have included more injured puppies, but beyond the admittedly satisfying surrealism, I've found it difficult to fully engage with some of this material, or to really see why it might be desirable for me to do so. It might be the lack of humour, although clearly there are some nods in that direction and not everything has to be Spike Milligan; but in places it felt as though I was reading through a codeine haze.

Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This island is an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

It makes sense quoted in isolation, but came across as generic philosophical landfill in context of the tale from which it is taken. Sometimes making some fucking sense can really help a story, you know?

Okay, so I enjoyed The Terminal Beach, albeit with certain reservations; and I'd say this is down to my own tastes rather than necessarily to Ballard's ability as a writer, although I still say his reputation is probably inflated somewhat out of proportion. Admittedly I've yet to read High-Rise or Crash or any of the other supposed classics, so I'll happily revise my opinion should I need to do so; and having read this lot, I can now at least imagine the possibility of the aforementioned being as wonderful as everyone seems to think they are.

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