It is difficult to find things to say about this book that people haven’t probably read elsewhere. As Ballard’s best known work (and for many people the first time they’d actually heard of him) and as one that has achieved great acclaim (not to mention being adapted as stunning movie of which Ballard approved and in which he makes a brief appearance) it has been dealt with in great length. However, there are some things worth mentioning because they get overlooked.
To begin with, it is a work of fiction. Because Ballard based it on his own childhood experiences of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, there are some who think it is a recounting of those experiences. If you read Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, it is clear there are enormous differences. This is worth pointing out, because there are many who undervalue the book for this reason. Jim’s adventures may be based on Ballard’s experience, but they are a deliberate fictional account. The book is a carefully constructed novel, using all the literary devices applicable to such a piece of fiction. If it is read as a recounting of actual events, these other layers can be lost. And there are layers in plenty: levels of imagery concerned with dissociation, themes about family and companionship, arcs concerned with Jim’s development and understanding that occur despite all the obstacles put in his way – including the physical and psychic debilitation caused by starvation.
As a wok of fiction it is one of a minority of literary works aimed largely at an adult audience that has a child as its protagonist. Children do feature more in fiction now, but there was a long period where they appeared only on the fringes and even then only as a bit of colour to add realism. Quite why children have been neglected in this way is a mystery to me. They are ideal central characters because, as with Jim, they can view the world in a naïve way that points up its absurdity. Throughout Empire of the Sun, Jim experiences things which he doesn’t understand yet which are clear to the adult reader. This juxtaposition is an acute tool that heightens events and attitudes.
It is a work that is key to understanding Ballard’s other work. He himself said that he spent twenty years forgetting the events and another twenty years remembering them. It is certainly true that whilst the novels that follow Empire of the Sun address the same concerns and ideas, use the same imagery, they do so in a different way. It would be going a bit far to say Ballard had tamed his demons, but he certainly had the measure of them. The vocabulary of the Ballardian landscape is to be found in those war years. The empty swimming pools, the ruins, the chaos, the hallucinatory attention to detail, the closed worlds with their own sets of rules, the roaming bands of brigands, the fascination with machinery…All these and more informed Ballard’s imagination and shaped the way in which he narrated his vision of the world.
Finally it is a book that makes no pretension to being literary. By which I mean that Ballard allows the story to drive the language and very often we are treated to straightforward and unaffected prose. Which makes the hallucinatory episodes, the description of the gleaming Mustang aircraft, the stark portrayal of violence all the more powerful. Ballard strips the language back and keeps it out of the way of the compelling story.
I could say so much more. It is a novel that encapsulates the twentieth century in a way few others even come close to. It is powerful, unsentimental (at times savage), non-judgemental, and brutally honest. All the ambiguities and evils of conflict are set out for our inspection. And for all the atrocities it exposes, this is also a novel about the development of the artist because from all that happened to him and all that he learned of that period, Ballard became a writer of the deepest integrity who understand more than most just how surreal, absurd, and terrifyingly glorious the world can be.