war fever

by uzwi

This review of Ballard’s collection War Fever appeared in the TLS in 1990–

A young Christian militiaman looks out over Beirut. He is about to discover that, for reasons of its own, the UN keeps not peace there but war. “Signal flares were falling over the city in calculated but mysterious patterns.”

Strong Ballardian images like this hang above the fourteen stories in War Fever, illuminating the Ballardian inner landscape that riots beneath. Quite often you expect them to turn into doves: but they don’t.

An institutionalised psychopath, simultaneously obsessed with and terrified by the exploration of space, assaults the visiting Home Office doctor. Suddenly, he catches sight of a Sotheby’s catalogue among the doctor’s papers. It has fallen open at the reproduction of a Samuel Palmer painting. “That serene light over the visionary meadows… appeared to calm him. He gazed at me in an uncanny way, bowing as if he assumed that I was the painter.”

World War 3 lasts “no more than 245 seconds”. Its other extraordinary feature, Ballard is able to reveal, is that a suburban paediatrician living in Arlington, “a few miles west of Washington DC”, is the only person to notice it.

Bizarre organo-phosphates fertilise the barren shores of an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. Meanwhile the cabin boy of the ship that spilled them is acting out Ballard’s pataphysical misreading of The Tempest, in which Prospero–here, the agri-chemical industry–has created “a new form of life”. New fruits–seedless, so that “the life of the individual becomes the entire life of the species” –glow “through the overheated light like jewels”. New birds are crushed by the weight of their own exotic plumage. At the end of the story, though, the Earthly Paradise corrupts. All the new vegetation is dead. Our Caliban, the cabin boy, isn’t the Adam he hoped he would be. Or is he ? Prospero’s island is as much a domain of opportunity as horror, after all: are we already a new form of life ? Ballard is not going to accept easy metaphors.

In this kind of fiction the events of the story need be little more than pantomimic. They are only a notation which enables the conceit to develop. Character is even less important, and here Ballard saves energy as he has always done, by leaving out what bores him. We have met these decaying world leaders, doomed terrorists, somnambulistic housewives and ambitious lady biologists before. By now they are as schematic as the characters of a pornographer. Not that the traits displayed would be of much use to the consumer of pornography. Ronald Reagan, for instance, is reduced to his own medical data:

“…Mr Reagan’s inter-cranial pressure is satisfactory. All motor and cognitive functions are normal for a man of the President’s age… At 2:35 local time President Reagan completed a satisfactory bowel motion.”

Many of the stories don’t need to be peopled at all. “The Index” is literally an index, but also figuratively, in the sense that it is a spoor representing, says Ballard, “the unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography of a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century.”

“Answers to a Questionnaire” is a spoor, too:

“19) My greatest ambition is to turn into a TV programme.”

If this discreet yet exotic quality of alienation–the transubstantiation of people into documents–saves Ballard from the accusation of laziness, it is the Swiftian sarcasm of stories like “The Secret History of World War 3” that diverts the accusation of frigidity. That he cares deeply can be seen immediately you read beyond each conceit. But his affect does seem tied, knotted round a few obsessively re-enacted scenes whose psychological import we can only intuit. War Fever, like all his work, is very much the fiction of ideas, of semiotics and remote-controlled metaphysical jokes, not people.

Ballard launches these dream cargoes towards us, spicy with oxymoron–the promise held out by pollution, the peaceful uses of war, the sanity of psychosis–and poetic imagery. We wait impatiently on the beach to unload and unpack them. Suddenly we feel his eye on us, and shiver. For just a moment it seems like the eye of the iguana which haunted the jungles of his own early work: unfathomable, reptilian, more than a little cold-blooded.