Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is a renowned writer across many fields of literature.  From science fiction catastrophes like The Drowned World to the highly experimental, post-modern literary collage comprising The Atrocity Exhibition, the semi-autobiographical The Empire of the Sun to the controversial social commentary of Crash, urban dystopias like High-Rise to free-form representation of the art and ideology of William Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company—Ballard’s oeuvre covers a lot of ground.  All novels, seemingly only people in the know are aware of what a powerful short story writer Ballard was.  The transition to short form not something every great writer can do, Ballard made it look easy—the ideas and themes of his novels deftly rendered in a dense, paucity of pages.  His 1964 collection The Terminal Beach contains some of his best.

Opening the collection is one of Ballard’s most straight-forward pieces of fiction: “A Question of Re-entry” starts in Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness mode, but quickly gets conspiratorial, science fiction style.  A UN agent named Connelly hires a boat captain to pilot him deep into the jungles of South America and find a crashed space shuttle. Arriving at their first waypoint, Connelly meets a half-crazed foreigner who lords over the village and its native inhabitants.  Something inexplicable about the foreigner, Connelly’s search for the fallen craft ends up turning over more than he expected.  The story lacking a lot of the psychology and symbolism Ballard is known for, the stripped down piece nevertheless reads very Ballardian, even as it represents humanity’s penchant for megalomania and criticizes the US space program.

A bizarrely transcendent piece, “The Gioconda of the Twilight Moon” tells of a man with an injury that renders him blind.  Retreating into his mind’s eye as he convalesces in his childhood home, things get very dream-like, very visual, very fast, resulting in one of Ballard’s more ‘optimistic’ stories.  (The picture painted in the reader’s mind in the final paragraph leaves strong residue.)  In another story featuring da Vinci (though more ‘directly’), “The Lost Leonardo” tells of the painter’s (fictional) masterpiece “The Crucifixion” and its seemingly impossible theft from the Louvre.  Ballard stringing the mystery along nicely, the ultimate resolution is one that is either a poke at religion, or just good storytelling. 

Sitting at the heart of the collection is the title story.  A powerful narrative, “The Terminal Beach” describes one man’s descent on a Pacific island into delirium resulting from radiation exposure in the after-effects of hydrogen bomb testing.  Described from a variety of perspectives, Ballard builds a strong degree of empathy without overtly manipulating the reader, all the while conjuring his classic wariness at the progress of civilization.  In some ways the quintessential Ballard, the symbolism of the man’s surrounds slowly blends with that of his psyche to strong literary effect.  In “The Delta at Sunset”, an injured curmudgeon sits on a beach each night, waiting for thousands of snakes to appear.  Problem is, only he sees the snakes.  Worse yet, help is such a long way that his injury causes further delusions and paranoia.   “The Volcano Dances” is a strange, restricted story whose purpose is elusive.  About an expatriate living in a Mexican village perched atop a volcano’s crater, each day he pays a devil-stick spinning shaman standing outside his door an appeasement, apparently for the volcano. 

Ballard’s interest in the larger ideal of art is rarely far from the surface of his fiction, and in “The Drowned Giant” the entropy of perspective (or something resembling such a notion) is set on a pedestal and drawn in words.  When a giant man washes ashore, townsfolk are in awe of his corpse.  But slowly, as the visage becomes quotidian and the body starts to putrify, the awe evolves.  As with a lot of good art, the concrete yet abstract nature of the content allows it to be interpreted and applied to a variety of ideas—the entropy of perspective just the one I chose, more available.  A touch maudlin, “Deep End” tells the tale of one young man’s attempt to save the last remaining dog fish after oxygen reclamation has nearly depleted the ocean.  Perhaps truthful in its presentation of human nature, Ballard has nevertheless written more subtle stories.

In what is clearly an early sketch of what would become the novel The Crystal World, “The Illuminated Man” tells of a world transformed by the Hubble Effect—a crystalline carpet spreading and engulfing the Florida coastline.  Possessing similar characters but a different premise than the novel, Ballard nevertheless remains focused on the human reaction to fast-paced, massive, environmental change.  The novel remains the more balanced effort (thankfully distancing itself from the rather kooky Hubble Effect), the short story nevertheless possesses the same invigorating yet strange alienness.  Almost a classic setting, in “End Game” convicted Russian dissident Constantin plays chess in a remote villa with his overseer, awaiting execution.  The date and time of his death unannounced, he plies his overseer for the details during matches, never able to win one due to the stress.  The day-in, day-out situation wearing on his psyche, Ballard has a suitable fate in store for his troubled Constantin.  One of Ballard’s best known shorts, “Billenium” tells of a world populated by dozens of billions of people, but focuses on trends in London housing, particularly the ever-decreasing size of legal inhabitable spaces.  Featuring a normal Joe, when he and a friend discover a “massive” apartment, their hopes for living skyrocket.  Time, however, and the human condition, have a different fate in store for their dreams.

In the end, The Terminal Beach is one Ballard’s most popular collections of short stories for a reason.  Containing some of the best short work he ever produced, stories like “The Drowned Giant”, “The Terminal Beach”, and “Billenium” resound beyond their pages with powerful imagery and substantive content.  And the remainder is likewise quality.  As 2theD writes, “This isn't a collection to rush through--it's one to slowly absorb, deconstruct, and reflect upon”, and I agree. 

The Terminal Beach has been reprinted more than a dozen times, and story order (and sometimes number) has often changed.  The following is the order of the twelve stories from the version of The Terminal Beach I read (fourth reprinting):

A Question of Re-Entry
The Drowned Giant
The Illuminated Man
The Reptile Enclosure
The Delta at Sunset
The Terminal Beach
Deep End
The Volcano Dances
The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon
The Lost Leonardo

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