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Book Review October 1, 2004
Ballard: A Sinner Redeemed
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"Empire of the Sun" - By J. G. Ballard

"Empire of the Sun" - J. G. Ballard

When you're living in a cabin in the rainforest with only a couple dozen books, you end up picking one to read over and over. For me this summer, it's been J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun.

When you're living in a cabin in the rainforest with only a couple dozen books, you end up picking one to read over and over. For me this summer, it's been J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun.

I didn't choose it. It was just lying there beside the lifejackets, along with several field guides to the Olympic Peninsula. So I had a wary peek at Empire of the Sun, the story of Ballard's childhood in a Japanese internment camp near Shanghai.

Wary, because there's something not quite right about Ballard. He's one of those sci-fi writers who are praised by middlebrows who hate sci-fi. Case in point: Ray Bradbury.

Ballard is many levels above Bradbury, but he's suspect, with a red tag on his file. The worst charge against Ballard is defection to the cool. He didn't start out cool, God knows. His early novels were boyish apocalypses, a mix of Conrad and James Bond -- or maybe Conrad and Irwin Allen. In the Wind from Nowhere, the wind gets faster and faster, which ruins everybody's hair. In the Drowned World, the world is, as you might have guessed, drowned.

They were formulaic, but fun; it's always fun to see how many ways you can kill the world. And each one had a few great moments, as in the Crystal World, in which even the stars turn crystal -- a wonderful impossibility.

Then Ballard went cool. And cool is the enemy. He moved to Miami, a felony in itself, and cruised those noir swamps with Baudrillard, another cool-groupie. He wrote about James Dean -- a very bad symptom of cool-suckery and noir-mongering. I gave up on him.

But Empire of the Sun seemed worth a try, because I knew it was a prison-camp story, one of my favorite genres, with long, voluptuous descriptions of food, beatings and pus.

When the prisoners are actually starving, as Ballard's are, the descriptions of food are even more exciting. I remember a Coetzee novel whose only interesting part was the bit about a man lying on a hillside, starving, slowly merging with the ground. Mmmm, that had me drooling. Best of all, prison camp stories are about passivity. They're a relief from the endless Horatio-Alger tales of people making it on their own.

That was my first grumble with Empire of the Sun: Ballard's protagonist "Jim" is so damn plucky. Separated from his parents when Shanghai falls to the Japanese, this eleven-year-old dynamo lives by his wits in the empty mansions of expat Shanghai, then talks his way out of a death-camp. Once he's made it to a standard camp, he's just a little bundle of smarts and energy, learning Latin and trig while running errands for the camp doctor. Ballard makes Jim's tale even more heroic by the affected third-person narrative: "Jim realized..." this and "Jim felt..." that. Ballard's prefatory note asserts that the book "describes my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War...." -- so why not "I"?

And sadly, there's not much fun about food. The Japanese give their prisoners nothing but sweet potatoes and cracked wheat -- not much to work with. Ballard offers a few good descriptions of the potatoes' "sweet pith" but Jim is too hyper and heroic to love food properly. When the war finally ends and B-29s start parachuting supplies to the ex-POWs, he just gulps Spam and condensed milk without a lot of foreplay.

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