Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lost Art of Reading

Perhaps I should have expected that following on from an eye operation it would be reading books that I found most difficult. It's only really the last few days, six weeks after the op, that I've been able to feel comfortable more than skim reading the newspaper. Watching TV and using the internet, perhaps because they are more passive, were less hard.

Anyway, having lost the art of reading over a period when I had plenty of time to read, if not energy, I've finally struggled through a complete book. I'd suggested we read J.G. Ballard at Manchester SF Book Club, and then, because of the op was not only not able to attend, but hadn't read the chosen book, "The Drowned World." Clare Conlon's blogged about the discussion here, so I expect a bit of a lynching next time I see everyone. Yet it's fascinating that a book that is genuinely lauded (as is Ballard) has left a large group of sympathetic readers cold.

In truth, I'd suggested Ballard for this very reason. I've had a number of his books on my shelf for years and each time I pick one up, I put it down again, primarily because I always find his prose peculiarly inert. In "The Drowned World", this inertia fits with the subject matter. In the blistering heat of a sunken London, with the characters holding out at the top floor of the Ritz, reality is not so much altered, as regressed to a previous way of being before man colonised the world. So effective has man's colonisation of nature been, that we forget how quickly nature returns - just see it in the lost cities of history. Yet though Ballard has pictured this world well, his writing, as I've found before, remains hard to plough through. Most SF books have some kind of forward tension, but not Ballard. There's a stiffness about both his descriptions and his (non) protagonists that seems awkward. I'd say as a first novel we might expect this - but the other books of his I've read, "Crash" and "Empire of the Sun" suffered as well. He's quite a lugubrious writer, but without the prose facility that might make you want to linger in his imagined spaces. In some ways it is science that seems to get in the way with "The Drowned World". Ballard seems most comfortable when talking about technical detail. The lingering feeling I've had about Ballard, that he is a poor stylist, but with big ideas, appears to be confirmed in this debut novel. The writing hasn't, I feel, lasted particularly well nearly 50 years after its publication. Yet the ideas are still strong enough to engage.

It's a short novel, and feels episodic - as one might expect from a short story writer. Yet the main points of the plot are thrown away quickly, with disinterest. It's perhaps why his main works have remained unfilmed - the novel is a painting with a few detailed brushstrokes, and a few broader dabs of paint. Ballard seems more comfortable with the broader dabs of paint - and the ennui of his characters and the stifling heat of his drowned world come back clearly. Like "Lord of the Flies" it feels like a post-war novel that is still intimately talking about the war; that sense of displacement. There's a constant struggle in this book with finding the right prose (and plot) to actually turn the ideas into a coherent novel, and mostly I think he fails, yet it's the honing of this awkward style in later books which probably accounts for his continued popularity as a "modern" writer when by instinct and background he's probably better read in the context of the writers of half a century before; particularly Conrad.

The debt's to "Heart of Darkness" are strong, particularly in the drifting south, but I'm perhaps as reminded of "The Secret Agent", where a small group of protagonists exists outside of the rest of society. For Conrad's murky underground, Ballard gives us a bunch of remaining survivors, hanging on to a land that they all have some attachment to but can hardly explain; staying there even as their protection leaves and a band of marauding brigands comes along to pillage what remains. Yet these plot machinations seem laboured; and it's the novel's subtext which is it's real subject. Ballard is not interested in humanity's travails in this hot and watery new world, he is more interested in nature as a character, coming back and reclaiming the human lands. In his protagonist Kerans he has a character who is visibly regressing into some kind of primal memory state. Rather than hangout in the unliveable city where he is based, or retreating to the arctic habitation where a small fraction of humanity now cowers, Kerans is drawn south to the ever hotter sun, his dreams and heatstroke-initiated hallucinations pulling him into a new mental state. This, we feel, in the age of LSD and marijuana, is Ballard's real subject. The past - characterised by his own internment in Shanghai during the Second World War - is lost, and can't be recreated; so the novel itself is a type of internment. Unlike "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", which celebrates humanity, and the small triumphs of the dreadful day, Ballard's characters are drawn into reverie and madness, like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" or the dervish children in "Lord of the Flies." Without the underpinning of a recognisable reality, the reader may as well be in an SF landscape on another planet - it seems that Ballard has little interest in the knowing references to the Old London of Will Self's similarly flooded capital in "The Book of Dave", or the cultural signifiers that Burgess holds onto in his dystopic "A Clockwork Orange." Kerans certainly doesn't think he is living through a dystopia. After the chaos of the war, you get the feeling that nothing in the novel is quite as nightmarish to this writer as the real and the present.

The next SF book club meeting is next Tuesday at Madlab - and the book is William Gibson's "Neuromancer."

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