After finishing the J.G. Ballard’s 1966 The Crystal World, I went online in search of not only what other people thought of the story, but also to see if I’d missed any of the hidden meanings or symbolism that seemed to always be lurking just below the surface. I found articles about its parallels to hallucinogenic drugs, reviews pointing out its apocalyptic overtones, essays on its psychological allegories to the sub-conscious, comparisons to Heart of Darkness—and all mentioned a dystopian thread running through the story. I relate this because, while these elements do play on the surface playing with the mind, the undercurrent of the novel seemed something more bittersweet than just another Brave New World or a Gibson novel. Wanting a better view, I re-read the book (at 176 pages, it’s quite easy), and much to my satisfaction, discovered something deeper.
The Crystal World is the story of the doctor Edward Sanders and a trip he takes to visit an ex-lover in the jungles of Matarre, Africa. The novel opens with Sanders on a ferry, arriving at the port which leads upriver to the jungle town. Almost immediately he notices things are not as they should be. The streets are deserted, what few people who appear keep to themselves, and strange, crystallized flowers are for sale in the dark recesses and behind closed doors of shops and kiosks. When a dead body turns up in the river having an arm likewise crystallized in jewels, Sanders heads straight to Matarre to discover the implications behind it all. The port just a hint, what he discovers in the jungle town may be more than he’s prepared for.
The scenery of The Crystal World is at times breathtaking. Ballard’s prose agile and descriptive, images from the story hang in the reader’s mind long after. The alligators, lepers, homes, palaces, and chapels hidden in the jungle are all described in rich, sensual detail. Moreover, the descriptions are amazingly never repeated, only echoed, despite that the motif remains relatively the same throughout. As such, Ballard is able to create the most strangely beautiful of pictures in the mind’s eye; at once dazzling for the surreal feeling it sends tingling up the spine, at others haunting for the dark visage seeming to underlie it all.
Near the outset of the book, Ballard makes mention of the Isle of the Dead. Anyone who has seen the Bocklin paintings (or listened to Rachmaninov’s composition based on the painting, for that matter), knows that despite the overt nature of the title, a sense of life quietly permeates the dulled image. The Crystal World, both in form and substance, is the same. At quick glance, a brooding mood superimposes the scenes, but upon closer inspection, a positive energy subtly infuses the story that transcends the apocalyptic in favor of something more personal. While it’s difficult to write further without giving away major plot points, suffice to say the decisions Sanders makes during his time in Matarre, while surreal in appearance, have real meaning for his spiritual and psychological health. (If this is the first review of The Crystal World you have read, I highly recommend that if you are intrigued thus far, don’t read any other reviews. Most spoil major points, some the whole plot, save the final moments.)
Along with the vividly realized setting, Ballard’s other method of expounding theme is symbolism embedded in character. Some may disagree, however, Sanders is the only fully fleshed character in the novel. The others who appear, the journalist Louise, the priest Balthus, the madman Ventres, and others, merely act as foils for Sanders’ actions and behavior. Presenting choices, they come and go on emblematic rather than empathetic terms, hinting at Ballard’s intents in the process. Characters are thus representative rather than emotive, distance rather than understanding needed while reading.
In the end, The Crystal World is a beautifully strange enigma that requires a bit of puzzling out. With so many factors in play (time, space, life, death, and so on) the true nature of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Though the novel’s prose is precisely in line with Graham Greene’s, Ballard moves deeper into fantasy for its substance, a metaphysical tale of surreal proportions the result. More literary than entertaining, the book comes recommended for those who appreciate vibrantly described settings, psychological puzzles, and storylines that reach at more than just telling a good yarn. Like the Isle of the Dead, it has the power to both haunt and invoke a sense of wonder.