In the realms of imaginative fiction, few have been as far "out there" for as long as J.G. Ballard. Yet the disturbing, warped realms conjured up in his 19 novels and myriad short stories have always stood in intriguing contradiction to the engaging, resolutely suburban, rather old-fashioned man who wrote them. At no point in his slim and dignified autobiography, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, does Ballard address that mismatch. But just by the telling, his story explains it all.
As the subtitle suggests, the first half of Miracles of Life deals with Ballard's extraordinary childhood in war-torn Shanghai; the second is spent at the typewriter in the leafy west London suburb where the author has lived for the last 47 years. The journey from one to the other has been central to his life and his fiction. Readers of his 1984 novel Empire of the Sun and the millions more who saw Steven Spielberg's film version of it will recognize Ballard's descriptions of the deprivations he suffered at the Lunghua detention camp after the Japanese army overran Shanghai in 1943. They'll recall, too, the blank, dreamlike gaze with which he absorbed the horrors unfolding around him: at the age of 14, he watched as a group of defeated Japanese soldiers, "aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted and inflict any pain," casually strangled a Chinese man to pass the time. For weeks in 1945, until the U.S. troops showed up, Ballard was not sure the war was really over. "To this day as I doze in an armchair," he writes, "I feel the same brief moment of uncertainty."
Ballard's tenuous relationship with his parents explains why he excluded them from Empire of the Sun. His father, who left England in 1929 to run a cotton factory, along with his wife and hundreds of other Brits, had a high old time of it in Shanghai's free-trade, hard-boozing International Settlement. For the young Ballard, life before the war was giddy and privileged, too a succession of gymkhanas, parties and inexhaustible supplies of American comics. But it was all colored by a guilt-edged curiosity at the poverty and brutality he saw on his frequent bike rides around the rest of Shanghai trips about which his mother later claimed to know nothing. Arm's-length parenting was common in this social set, writes Ballard, with children often treated as "an appendage to their parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador." He claims these were happy days, yet time and again he mourns, without rancor, the lack of parental warmth, which he blames on the stiff formalities of the British middle classes of the time. "The vistas of polished furniture," he writes, "turned a family home into a deserted museum, with a few partly colonised rooms where people slept alone, read and bathed alone, and hung their clothes in their private wardrobes along with their emotions, hopes and dreams."
Docking at Southampton in 1946, Ballard found England just as classbound and uptight, and also bombed out and exhausted. He studied medicine at Cambridge, but was impatient for the future already signposted by Freud, the Surrealists and American science fiction. With his wife, Mary and, in quick succession, three children Ballard immersed himself in the hands-on family life he craved. After the publication of The Drowned World in 1962, he could afford to stay home, writing more postapocalyptic tales. Then, the following year, Mary died of pneumonia. This loss struck Ballard as a bitter and unexplained crime of nature, and it would obsess him for decades. But it didn't damage his appetite either for fatherhood or the typewriter. In fact, he writes, "My greatest ally was the pram in the hall."
Her death did, however, untether Ballard's writing from the outer space of conventional science fiction. Instead, he began to explore the "inner space" of everyday culture that was being shaped by consumerism, T.V., sex and celebrity most of it American. The psychotic hero of his provocative, experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) stumbles through chapters like Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. and You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe. The character's own sense of reality seems to crumble along with the last vestiges of novelistic realism.
Ballard liked to think of his books as radical, "a desperate attempt to prove ... that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s." Many critics preferred old-fashioned math, though, and by the time of Crash, his 1973 tale of erotic pleasures amid the carnage of car wrecks, even his own publisher's view was that "this author is beyond psychiatric help." As if to prove that a new moral compass was at work in inner space, Ballard's book attracted little controversy until 23 years later, when the shock-horror director David Cronenberg brought Crash to the big screen. The French, Ballard notes, "accepted without qualms the yoking together of sex, death and the motor car. Anyone who drives in France is steering into the pages of Crash." But in England, the movie's distribution was delayed for a year by a wave of media-led outrage. "What's going on here?" Cronenberg asked. "After fifty years, I was nowhere near the answer," writes Ballard.
Now 77 and suffering from advanced prostate cancer, Ballard finds the answers that matter in his children and grandchildren his Miracles of Life. But there are miracles of fiction here, too. So convincing was the story he made of the horrors of Lunghua that when Ballard finally returned there in 1991, it was as if he had "walked up to a mirage, accepted that in its way it was real, and then walked straight through it to the other side." Ballard's own journey from inner to outer space turned out to be no distance at all.