Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Crystal World - J G Ballard

This is the fourth of Ballard’s novels and like its predecessors it is what some called a story of inner space. It uses a science fiction trope (something to do with a ‘leakage of time’) to set up a situation in which a group of disparate characters, who were already living on the edges of society, are confronted with a situation that is both terrifying and a form of salvation.

Sections of African rainforest are turning to crystal. Most people are running, trying to escape being caught and petrified. Others are drawn toward the strange phenomenon, seeing in it a way of resolving their personal issues – a place to escape.

Despite the quality of the writing and the well-realised exposition of the situation (this is full of Ballard’s trademark imagery and scenery – deserted towns, armed conflict, the chaos of social collapse), this book does not work so well for me as the three previous novels (even the hastily written Wind From Nowhere). The world that Ballard has created has a fragile sterility that is, perhaps, not so engaging on a subconscious level as some of his other works. Indeed, this would have worked as well, if not better had he eschewed the science fiction element and set it in a war zone – but he was probably not ready to relive his own memories of that when this was written.

Sanders, even for a Ballard central character, is curiously unengaging. The other characters are equally difficult to grasp. And for a work of ‘inner space’ this is a disappointment. On the other hand it does create a strong impression of social disintegration and does reflect the essence of the book in that everyone seems as cold as the jewels with which they are surrounded.

It is, however, a well-written, concise, and at times extremely powerful book. Looking back over Ballard’s career as a writer, it is easy to see now that he was working things out with these early books, looking at the world from different angles, exploring how our inner lives mesh with external appearance and experience. This can be found in his short stories of this period as well which were becoming increasingly ‘experimental’. Indeed, this book might be said to mark the end of Ballard’s apprenticeship as a novelist. Happy days that a writer was allowed such time to develop.