Posts Tagged ‘J.G. Ballard’

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

Thanks J.G. Ballard, now it all makes sense

March 29, 2010

‘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.’

‘Chat roulette.’

‘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?’

‘No.’

‘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.