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Book Review October 1, 2004
Ballard: A Sinner Redeemed
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 2
He's much better with the pus and deathporn. Ballard's central "image" of Shanghai (and it is an "image," slightly too literary) is the coffins launched on the river by Chinese too poor to bury their relatives. The tide takes the coffins out, then brings them right back, bloated and hideous. Death never leaves.

There's no pity in all this. Give Ballard all credit for that. Jim doesn't pretend to care about the millions of anonymous peasants dying around him, nor does he make a big Gothic deal out of his lack of compassion. He frankly loves death, and lingers lovingly on descriptions of pus and skeletons. Jim's judgments of his world are wonderful, pitiless and original. He loves the war, even though it inconveniences him. "Wars always invigorated Shanghai," and they have the same effect on Jim. He ruthlessly classes the nations by bravery and glory. He has little interest in the cowering Chinese and is equally unimpressed by his fellow Brits, proud without reason, always complaining.

It's the Japanese who are Jim's real heroes. He has magnificent dreams of joining the all-conquering Japanese Air Force in time to take part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and as he watches the Japanese slowly lose the war, he comes to admire the kamikaze pilots most of all.

Evoking Jim's complex magical reasoning is Ballard's greatest achievement. Jim thinks he started the war himself, by flashing a light from a window; he believes the American pilots' deaths sanctify the landscape in which they crash; he's convinced that his moods can turn the war. It rings very strange, and very true.

This could have been one of the great books of the past century. If it's true that great literature consists of writing scenes that have never been shown before, Ballard's chapters on Jim's life before and after the camp are truly great. There's never been anything like this kid scavenging European mansions in the suburbs of Shanghai, or wandering a huge wasteland into which red parachutes are dropping bomb-like canisters full of cans of Spam, and copies of Reader's Digest from the same B-29s which turned Japan into an inferno.

Unfortunately, Ballard-the-writer continually intrudes -- Ballard who was too eager for mainstream praise to be a great science-fiction writer like Dick or Vance, Ballard who wrote to impress Susan Sontag. Every chapter in Empire of the Sun ends with a hideously literary paragraph, the "images" dropping like upstairs boots: "It had been kind of Mrs. Philips to give him her last potato, and he remembered his dreamy thoughts of having died. But he had not died. Jim stamped his shoes in the dust, surprised at his own weakness. Death, with her mother-of-pearl skin, had almost seduced him with a sweet potato." Too much mother-of-pearl and not enough sweet potato. And "Death" as a "her." It's not death that seduced Ballard but Literature, the kind of

Literature that wins mainstream awards, that collects Oscars. But the good bits are so good -- descriptions of suppurating leg ulcers or scraps of greasy rice and fish on a soldier's messkit. They last; they're still exciting, after a dozen readings. That's rare, rare enough to expiate Ballard's infidelity to SF.

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