The Enormous Space

chul-hyun-ahn-emptiness1[1]
Chul Hyun Ahn-Emptiness 2002
I have concentrated in my previous J. G Ballard posts on his influential and highly controversial ‘Concrete and Glass’ experimental novels of the late sixties and early seventies that included The Atrocity Exhibition ( see Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Marilyn Monroe), Crash (Always Crashing In The Same Car) and High-Rise (Living The High Life). However in addition to his eighteen novels Ballard produced hundred of short stories throughout his lengthy career. Ballard was truly a master of this unjustly neglected art-form and several of his stories rank among the world’s greatest in my (admittedly biased) opinion.

Ballard’s first published work was the short story Prima Belladonna which was set in the decadent, futuristic desert resort of Vermillion Sands where several of his early stories are based. Ballard is mainly known for his  dystopian visions of the near future and among his most chilling prophecies are The Concentration City, about a metropolis that encompasses the entire world and The Subliminal Man which is surely one of the most prescient criticisms of advanced capitalism ever penned. Other stand out stories include the sublime, elegiac fantasy The Garden of Time which surely contains a nod to the great symbolist drama Axel by the otherworldly aristocrat Villers De l’Isle-Adam (To the Dreamers, To the Deriders), the Freudian psychodrama Mr F is Mr F, the Borgesian Report on an Unidentified Space Station and the terrifying existential drama of Minus One.

Probably my favourite is a later story, The Enormous Space from 1989. It’s theme is quinessential Ballard; an unhappy middle aged professional in the midst of a divorce surrenders to an internal logic in the hope of finding a more ‘real’ life. His solution is simple, he decides to never leave his suburban house again. Obviously this being Ballard this means more than just becoming a mere shut-in, and in the darkly humorous and unnervingly demented pages that follow Ballard shows exactly how far the narrator is prepared to go to in his desire to remain marooned from society.

The following passage is a perfect illustration of a mind beguiled by irrationality:

Without doubt, I am very much better. I have put away the past, a zone that I regret ever entering. I enjoy the special ease that comes from no longer depending on anyone else, however well-intentioned.

Above all, I am no longer dependent upon myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me, who provided me with expensive clothes, who drove me about in his motor car, who furnished my mind with intelligent books and exposed me to interesting films and art exhibitions. Wanting none of these, I owe that person, myself, no debts. I am free at last to think only of the essential elements of existence-the visual continuum around me, and the play of air and light. The house begins to resemble an advanced mathematical structure, a three-dimensional chessboard. The pieces have yet to be placed, but I feel them forming in my mind.

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41 thoughts on “The Enormous Space

  1. And he builds an entire story around a man isolating himself within his home… I cannot imagine contemplating the mathematical properties of the structure of my house or the rooms within indefinitely. Not that long stretches of alone time aren’t welcome – that I can relate to. I’m going to need to read something light hearted after Crash.

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    1. Ahhh I will admit that you couldn’t read too many books like Crash in a row (unless you want to go mad). The enormous space is really really funny, think about what would happen in 89 if you never left your house without anyone but the utility people stopping by, you would have a few practical difficulties. Garden of time is truly beautiful… Anthony Burgess called it one of the top ten stories in all of literature

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      1. Agreed, plus you can drip in and out. The short story format really suited Ballard as well and it is where he cut his teeth in writing. Back in the day you could support yourself writing short stories for magazines, either the pulps or Playboy etc while grinding out your novels. Alas those days are long gone.

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      2. Oh I know… I wish that was still the case. I love writing short pieces. And to actually earn a living writing while writing your novel? I suppose there still are some venues for submission, but I think much of that is unpaid and the compensation is in the visibility.

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      3. Well Ballard said later in his career that if it hadn’t been for the pulps and Playboy especially he may not have been able to carry on. Playboy paid especially well. He said he felt sorry for younger writers as they had to write novels without first honing their craft on short stories. The economics of book and magazine publishing I suppose dictated the surfeit of novels and the relative decline of the short story.

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      4. I wish I remember where I read that they are making a comeback though… Short story collections are gaining popularity amongst the mass of self published work out there now. It is a nice way to introduce oneself – put together a sum total of 10k words or so, publish and sell at 99c or even give it away and now you are a published author. Hmmm… I should have thought of that earlier.

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      5. Hmmm… I am having doubts now about this Ballard series now, I was looking at the Ballardian website and that has some really intense critical theory readings of Ballard. Ah well mine was an introduction.

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      6. Thank you, just worry that my analysis is rather superficial, though the purpose is to introduce and let anyone who wants to go further discover for themselves. Hopefully my deep admiration comes across.

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      7. ” … if you never left your house without anyone but the utility people stopping by … ” sounds like life at my age … though we did have a neighbor drop in today and ask us if we had an egg to lend her … she owes us about a dozen … I guess we’ll never learn …

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  2. I have a strange relationship with JG Ballard. I really want to like his books, I love his concepts and the atmosphere he creates. But somehow I always come away feeling unsettled; rattled, as though I have been spoken to in a harsh and arrogant manner. Even so, I always want more. The quote at the end of your post is most excellent.

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    1. Ballard makes no compromises to the reader so I can understand your reaction. He certainly looked at things at a different angle and was extraordinary odd. I think the best thing is just surrender to that insane internal logic and accept (while you are reading anyway) the vision. Also the question of genre is important, this is never in no way realistic fiction, it is science fiction, fantasy, pornography, satire etc and they must be read as such. Maybe this is more a reflection of myself but I find Ballard very funny in a macabre way. With a book like Crash though anyone who isn’t rattled is incredibly strange, the whole purpose is to rattle and unnerve.

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  3. I must thank you on your wonderfully interesting and informative site – I always look forward to reading your posts and thoughts.
    I’ve not read any of Ballard’s short stories, only Crash – looks like a trip to the library is in order!
    Cheers.

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    1. Thank you Chris…that really means a lot as sometimes I wonder. I am re-reading Crash now, still shocking and bizarre. His short stories are excellent. Thanks again, hopefully I will carry on being interesting and informative.

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  4. The self-alienation in the quote reminds me of that Kafka mis-quote where he asked why he should have anything in common with anyone when he had nothing in common with himself.

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    1. Good spot… Ballard said the future was going to be like Kafka with unlimited Chicken Kiev. But the self-alienation is understandable, we do deck ourselves out with a persona that as time goes on we have less and less interest and sympathy with.

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      1. Great idea from Ballard – Alan Partridge would have a ball.
        The character who disappears into his own brand of solipsism rather reminds me of the kind of retreat from a changing world in old age that I think Napolean commented on: if you want to understand a man, just look at the world when he was 19.

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      2. That is very true and would explain the connection between conservatism and growing older. At a certain point I think everyone gives up on keeping with change and relapses in a private world.

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      3. A temptation and a danger. Our interest in surrealism and authors such as Ballard have that strange balance between keeping us on our toes about the anaesthesia in modern life, while on the other hand risking us turning into art historians fetishising our interests into dead objets d’art in cabinets. What can one do? I’m happy to read Bataille, but I’m not going to frequent brothels, and I’m certainly not going to go into the woods to commit human sacrifices. Where does one draw the line between enlivening and deadening one’s life with bourgeois literary appreciation? I feel lucky to currently have a spinal injury so that I can have a brief taste of potent medication!

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      4. Be careful of codeine… I had a spinal injury six years back and it does the job but it has a certain flattening quality about it. Agreed, it is a danger and a temptation.

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      5. I need to be off it before returning to work. I’d be sure to make errors all day. What I like about it though is that it brings joy to conversations when you bump into people you know. The codeine vibe is instantly infectious.

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      6. Wow! I’ve only had a few days and can sense the danger. The dire warnings I’ve had have been about the Diazepam, which doesn’t seem to have much effect on me. The codeine doesn’t do much for me either – it’s when I take it with the paracetamol that it blows the roof of my head off. I can see how people end up addicted to pain killers. Dangerous stuff. I once has omnipom after an operation. When I found out it’s an opium derivative I asked to just have my dressing without the jab. A friend of a friend at the time had lost his life to opiates. I’m an aspirin man myself.

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      7. Most of the artists and writersI like are from the past, they took more risks and were edgier. But I am with you on the whole going down to the woods or brothels. I think Ballard’s following Flaubert advise is the best: be throughly bourgeois in life and throughly radical in art and imagination.

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