The best J.G. Ballard book is Vermilion Sands. It’s closely followed by Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, High-Rise and Concrete Island. All of his other books are very good too.
However, the reason I like Vermilion Sands so much is because it’s different to the other works by Ballard. At the same time as defying his oeuvre by being warm-toned, gentle and ultimately optimistic, it also defines Ballard’s writing style, presenting characters that live in a near-empty resort town on the edge of a desert, all of whom indulge in psychological games and creative or destructive pursuits.
For the last forty years, J.G. Ballard has been a chronicler of 20th and 21st century psychopathology. His main theme has been the reaction of individuals and groups of people to enforced proximity through restriction, enclosure or imprisonment. Usually the enclosure is merely the actuality of living in a gated community, or in a holiday resort, or in a prison camp, or on an island.
In most Ballard novels, the conflict has happened before the protagonist arrives; in fact it’s the conflict that often brings the protagonist into the story, only to become embroiled in the ongoing conflicts as the story progresses.
Vermilion Sands is and isn’t like that. Each ‘chapter’ focuses on a different group of people who all live in the decaying resort town of Vermilion Sands. As their stories are told, it’s possible to see that Ballard is studying the place through the reactions of the inhabitants, and not necessarily the inhabitants through their reaction to the place.
In a way, Ballard uses Vermilion Sands to chronicle the psychopathology of a specific geographical location. The book is also a fascinating study of art in all its various forms, dealing with the creation of music, poetry, architecture, sculpture, and other art forms, including some quite bizarre ones.
I consider J.G. Ballard to be one of the most important writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. In terms of cultural influence, he is as important as William S. Burroughs.
Here’s a list of his books:
Running Wild (1988)
The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (2006)
Miracles of Life (2008)
I strongly recommend Vermilion Sands as the book to start with if you are unfamiliar with Ballard’s work. Also, it’s a good one to read if you know his work reasonably well. Some only know of him as the author of Empire of the Sun, but that’s one of his lesser books.
I read recently that J.G. Ballard, who had terminal cancer, has died. He died on the 19th April 2009. Although his death was not unexpected, this is very sad news. He has been a profound influence on my writing and, although I did not know him, I feel the world will be a far less interesting place without him.
I hope you enjoy the books you choose to read.
Revised April 20th 2009
© R J Dent (2009)