Since JG Ballard’s death recently I’ve heard a lot of people on the radio, in print and in casual conversations praise Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Perhaps the conversations are not that surprising as I’m in
Personally I’ve never actually thought Empire of the Sun was a great book – at least not within Ballard’s overall cannon which contains several more important and greater works notably Crash (1973) and his other dystopian novels of the British new wave (a wave he largely created).
In this sense Empire is an aberration rather than the norm in terms of Ballard’s work. A "novel",
though obviously based on Ballard’s own experiences, rather than an autobiography and not intended as a a reliable historical text. Indeed Ballard never claimed it should be used as such (when other internees disputed his book he had to point this out repeatedly to peopel who refused to see the word "novel" on the cover) and insisted the words ‘A Novel’ appeared on the cover. Of course Spielberg’s film (and it’s hard to imagine the Hollywood engendered Spielberg liking anything else of Ballard’s – surely he would have been put off by the "adultness" and remorseless downbeat nature of his fiction) further removed the book from any reality with the rather annoying insertion of several scenes not in the book that seem to add nothing except a certain late twentieth century political correctness Spielberg is of course noted for.
So if it’s not exactly a great book why is it important? It seems to me that Ballard’s stark dystopian literature, his nervousness of the culture of consumption and general social vacuity are best understood
through the prism of his wartime experiences. That’s why reading Empire (and his decidedly less commonly read, but arguably more revealing, follow up The Kindness of Women, published in 1991) is important – not to learn anything about Shanghai (which you won’t unless you know absolutely nothing about the place and time, in which case sue your history teachers) or particularly Ballard’s experiences or feelings at the time (Jim is not him he was always keen to point out and says little about the situation either personally or politically) but to better understand the roots of Ballard’s incredibly important fiction that he wrote after he returned to England.
I think Ballard himself saw Empire this way. In one of his last interviews with the BBC he discussed his youthful experiences. Ballard accepted that of course his fiction would have been totally different if he had not undergone the unpleasantness of inte rnment in
In Shanghai Ballard learnt the essential surrealism of life – he remembers walking the previously neat and prosperous streets and seeing cars on their roofs (the bomb that fell outside the Cathay Hotel left), apartment buildings shattered to reveal their innards of 20 living rooms and 20 private lives that weren't meant to be on public display and of course dead bodies littering the pavement (both the starved and the bombed). Ballard believed that the war had made him nervous of bland reassurances that everything was all right and that when anyone told him everything was “all right”, it was invariably anything but. As he said, ‘reality is a stage set that can be swept aside, as I saw as a boy in
Clearly that loss of one privileged life for another dystopian one is key as was (and noted in The Kindness of Women) the unexpected death of Ballard’s wife at a young age that left him a widower with three children to care for) proved to him the transient and temporary nature of everyday seemingly constant reality.
What else did he take from his
Interestingly I think one of the most important things he took from Shanghai that became a recurrent theme for him - the human struggle within a consumerist landscape – ended in 1937 but has come back to haunt the city as the post-1949 powers that be encourage consumption over spirituality and shopping as the great ideology-religion-culture to end all others and to negate opposition or disgruntlement with one's lot in life.
It was these experiences that shaped Ballard’s incredible fiction and therefore why reading Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women remains important. The interesting thing to ponder is quite how Ballard partly predicted the descent of