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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

How awful have these past few months been for contemporary letters?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/19/09 at 08:20 PM

Here’s a paragraph from the late David Foster Wallace’s review of the late, as of today, J.G. Ballard’s 1991 collection War Fever:

J.G. Ballard is not a great fiction writer, but he is an important one.  If that seems like an inconsistent judgment, be advised that American readers who know Ballard only via his moving, Spielbergable memoir Empire of the Sun do not know the real J. G. Ballard.  The real Ballard has since the early ‘60s been a pioneer of a certain sort of literary science fiction I like to call Psy-Fi.  Psy-Fi, often parodic, surreal and grotesque, and almost always set in some near and recognizable future, seeks to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism, etc.

When he wrote this in 1991, Wallace himself had just started writing an “often parodic, surreal and grotesque” novel “set in [the] near and recognizable future” that sought “to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism,” and more than a little et cetera.  I’d never considered my passion for both novelists related until I stumbled across this review a few months back.  The coldness Wallace speaks of in Ballard’s prose is utterly unlike anything you find in Wallace’s own work.  Even when his narrators speak, as he claimed Ballard’s do, in a “flat, scholarly narrative voice, [with] an air of lab technicians looking at stuff under glass,” the result never resembles the clipped, clinical speech of which Ballard was a master—for in Wallace, such disinterested precision is always affected.  But without Ballard, there would have been no Wallace; in fact, without Ballard, contemporary literature would look very different. 

A British friend once told me that Ballard was “Our [meaning English-speaking] Borges.” I’m not sure he was right, but I’m not about to argue that he was wrong.


do not know the real J. G. Ballard

I’m not so sure about that. One of Ballard’s technique is to bring a science-fictional sensibility to descriptions of the quotidien.

In his early disaster novels (The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Drought) the protagonists initially struggle against the disaster; soon they are overwhelmed and society breaks down; as things gets worse they become attracted to the disaster and finally psychologically embrace it.

During the 1970s Ballard began to apply this technique of estrangement and alienation to the ordinary--the alienating disaster in The Crystal World (1966) is a plague of crystallization but in Concrete Island (1974) it’s the invasion of London by urban motorways and in High Rise (1975) it’s the isolation of tower block living.

Empire of the Sun is an application of this technique to his own childhood--it’s definitely the real Ballard.

By Gareth Rees on 04/20/09 at 07:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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