‘I’ve always been struck by what J.G. Ballard said,’ an architect said to me at a party the other day.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, slightly irked that he knew more about books and writers than me. My rather limited supply of architectural conversation pieces was long-dried-up.
‘You know, about how everybody is living in fiction, and that reality only exists in novels. He said that it’s the writer’s job to bring people back to reality.’
I didn’t know, needless to say, but I was intrigued. And the following day, remembering the conversation, I did a bit of internet hunting until I found what he’d been talking about.
J.G. Ballard wrote a staggeringly thought-provoking introduction to the 1974 French edition of his novel Crash. You can read it – and I would urge you to – here. (You need to scroll down a little bit until you reach number 1.)
What rich pickings! Such sharp brilliance, so many ponderable arguments and quotable lines. And that’s for anyone, not just writers. Here is the extract to which I think the architect must have been referring:
I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind … We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
‘We live inside an enormous novel.’ What an extraordinary thought. Immediately, admittedly rather solipsistically, I had to ask, what sort of novel do I inhabit?
The thing is, and I think J.G. would have been pleased with this, recently I feel increasingly like I am living in sci-fi.
That party – the one where J.G. Ballard came up in conversation – offers just one of many instances when I have been taken over by this rather uncanny feeling. Soon after the J.G. Ballard chat, I peeled away and joined a group of people in the next room. They were all clustered together around something. As I got closer, I saw that this something was a laptop. Aha, I thought, they’re probably deciding what music to put on; perhaps they’re assembling a play-list. (Itunes is no longer sci-fi for me, although I’m sure it is for my father, who still thinks of ‘wireless’ as referring to the radio, rather than an internet connection.)
But no, as I drew even closer, I saw they were all looking at an on-screen image of an Asian teenager sitting at his desk. ‘Boring,’ someone said, and at that moment the screen went blank. A moment later a masturbating transvestite appeared.
‘Woah,what’s going on?’
Nobody seemed to hear me. They were all watching the screen. Then, a minute or so later, it went blank again, before a man wearing a Viking helmet appeared. The process continued, people continued to pop on and off the screen, as though they were television channels, slowly being flicked through.
Eventually I managed to catch someone’s attention, I had resorted to tugging on his sleeve. ‘What is this? It’s crazy.’
‘What’s chat roulette.’
He looked at me like I was a diminutive sort of alien. The sort that only comes up to one’s knee and has no intelligence whatsoever. ‘You don’t know chat roulette?’
‘Er, do you have a computer?’ Oozing with sarcasm.
‘Yes.’ Telling myself it is the lowest form of wit.
‘Have you heard of the world wide web?’
‘Yes. Actually, I write a blog.’
‘Really?’ A moment of interest. ‘What’s your blog about?’
‘Oh.’ I knew I’d crashed even before I said it. ‘It’s about books.’
He didn’t even laugh, just turned back to the screen, more interested in the silhouette of someone jerking off than in my conversation. Charming.
In the words of J.G. Ballard (from the same introduction):
Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
My ignorance of chatroulette.com, my pathetic failure to speak the language of the internet, meant that I was effectively muted.
Giving up on the laptop crowd, I found my friends in another room. I told them what was going on next door. ‘I felt like such an idiot,’ I said. ‘I was so out of place.’
‘And isn’t it all just so weird?’ I continued, getting into my stride. ‘It’s so odd that people go to a party and would rather communicate with someone somewhere completely different instead of talking to the person next to them. I mean, why did they even bother coming if they’re not going to talk to anyone here?’
‘Everyone knows about chat roulette. Just get over it.’
Subject closed, one of them got out his iPhone and started looking on Gaydar, an app that shows gay people who are nearby. ‘Let’s message that one,’ he said, passing around the on-screen mugshot.
That’s when I realised I was in a sci-fi novel. As Ballard says (same introduction again):
In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, too, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction, conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.
All I could do at the party was hold on to the small node of reality inside my own head and tell myself, no no no, whatever is going on here just can’t be real. This is all too odd to be real. This must be no more than a sci-fi novel. And I don’t entirely believe in it.
I suppose it could be worse. At least I’m not living in crime fiction.