Thursday, March 25, 2010
40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Seven
The Crystal World
I was out for dinner the other night (Happy Birthday, Kenny!) when my sister and I got into a conversation about the work J. G. Ballard, British writer of science fiction (if you can call it that). She had recently re-read Concrete Island, a book of his she hated the first time she read it, but found she liked it more this time. It goes without saying I envy her finding the time to re-read stuff – even stuff she hates! – whereas I don’t have time to read everything I’m interested in.
But how to explain Ballard? He considered himself a surrealist, writing the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali or Max Ernst’s work, which explains the consistent depictions of human beings in strange landscapes. The standard expectations of fiction, such as realistic characters with recognizable psychological motivation and verisimilitude in plot, didn’t mean much to him. He thought science fiction was the best mode for writing about the changes technology had wrought on the individual psyche, but generally avoided the genre’s trappings (aliens, spaceships, robots). Even when his work is experimental in form or content, the language is always clear, accessible. The tone is reasonable; you just have to get over your “what the hell?” reaction.
It’s this contradiction that gives his work its power: the reasonable British voice describing the most irrational things. He seemed completely uninterested in morality, whether his characters were “good” or “bad.” As the environment changes unnaturally and people go mad as a result, such a man-made dichotomy seemed irrelevant.
The Crystal World is one of Ballard’s apocalyptic novels, but it’s a beautiful apocalypse. Everything within a jungle in Africa – animals, plants, people – is slowly crystallizing, turning into stunning clear jeweled objects. The contradiction is something so beautiful being so bad. There are enough descriptions of the natural world in crystal form that you wonder is Ballard is a frustrated painter, describing images he couldn’t create. In terms of literature, it’s like reading Joseph Conrad as you drift off to sleep. Its tale of squabbling Westerners moving into a mysterious jungle keeps turning into descriptions of a jungle that looks like it was made of glass.
The transformation of the world inspires some to embrace this change and deliberately allow all or part of their bodies to crystallize. The explanation for the phenomena is a quirk in how space and time relate, so that anything that crystallizes is actually frozen in time, neither alive nor dead, and eternal. It’s mysticism linked to science rather than spirituality.