Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

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Review: The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is hard to review a book that has so many extant reviews, so many of which are so positive. The Road is my second Cormac McCarthy book; I have recently read No Country for Old Men, which I found interesting, gripping, a page turner, with hints of wider themes and interests. Like The Road, my edition of No Country for Old Men had many flyleaves that contained glowing extracts from glowing reviews extolling the virtues of the book. And though I enjoyed the book, I found that I had not discovered those virtues.

When I finished The Road, and returned to re-read the many glowing extracts from glowing reviews on its flyleaves, I found myself rather at a loss. I had enjoyed the novel, and its spare language and short, well-spaced paragraphs had made it a quick read, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. Yet, I found nothing new or extraordinary in the book, nor in its language. The language was spare, certainly, and repetitive at times. Yet, The Road belongs to a genre — the post-apocalyptic novel. Of course, the post-apocalyptic novel has mainly been the reserve of science fiction authors, and I couldn’t help wondering if any of the reviewers who had written the glowing extracts from the glowing reviews had read J G Ballard, or Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R Delany or Walter M Miller or many others.

The post-apocalyptic novel has an honourable tradition in science fiction; The Road offered no new shocks and no new horrors, no departures from that tradition. What “new” horrors there were, over and above earlier entries in the genre, were more because of where we are, as readers and writers, in what we allow and what we accept, than in anything extraordinarily outre. Earlier authors, such as Delaney in Dhalgren had experimented with form; Ballard had been elliptical and distant in his series of ‘disaster’ novels, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and, of course, The Drought; in Damnation Alley, Zelazny’s hero has to drive a truck along a post-apocalyptic road.

Of course, in a Cold War world in which everybody was mentally prepared for nuclear disaster, the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative thrived. Such was the currency of apocalytics and disaster in New Wave science fiction, the title of Michael Moorcock‘s collection of Jerry Cornelius stories, The New Nature of the Catastrophe, made perfect sense while being an ironic dig at a tradition he had helped foster.

This then, was my problem: The Road was a worthy entry into the tradition; but it carried with it nothing more than previous (mainly science fiction) authors had provided; and I would rather have The Drought, or A Boy And His Dog, or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker on my desert island.

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