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Empire of the sun.

J.G. Ballard's name carries cult status in Britain, where he occupies the turbulent void between science fiction and the literary avant-garde, a dim region also inhabited by his mentor, William Burroughs. He is famous for the icy and macabre notions formulated in novels like Crash, High-Rise and The Drowned World.

Ballard describes Empire of the Sun as "an eyewitness account of events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lungha," where he was interned with his parents at a tender age. It is a curious contribution to the literature of survival, and an important addition to the Ballard canon. His first novel that doesn't resemble science fiction, it serves as a kind of portrait of the artist as a young entropist. It is as well crafted and chilly as anything he has written.

Characters hardly matter in Ballard's decaying universe. Only the 11-year-old hero, an English schoolboy named Jim (Ballard's name), sustains interest. To Ballard, people are defined by the phusical spaces that contain them. We are no more than throbbing organic matter among futuristic objects, and the objects are slightly more interesting. At his most sympathetic, he evinces a dry sadness for his people, trapped as they are amid chaos, with nothing to console them but their Pavlovian responses.

In Crash Ballard invented a new kind of lust, the "techno-erotic," which perhaps has its visual equivalent in the paintings of James Rosenquist. To Vaughan, the hero of that novel, there is something weirdly arousing about car crashes, about the way mangled flesh sensually mingles with shattered glass and bent metal. Vaughan dies in a kamikaze-style blaze of glory when he drives head-on into the limousine of pop icon Elizabeth Taylor. He plans the fatal crash with minute, obsessive attention to detail, and injures himself in numerous practice runs for the final fling: "He talked of these wounds and collisions with the erotic tenderness of a long-separated lover."

Jim, a precocious polymath who is fascinated by aircraft, is like Vaughan in short trousers. His eye for detail is unnaturally acute, as when he notices a familiar mark on a Chinese beggar: "He could see the pattern of the Packard's Firestone tires in the old man's left foot."

Jim loses his parents in the chaos of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. He adapts instantly to his strange new life, eating cocktail olives, crackers and soda water in the deserted mansions of the foreign quarter where he lived, later almost thriving as a resourceful adolescent prisoner in the internment camp outside the city. After three years of fending off starvation, Jim wonders if life will continue after the war ends, or if a new war, World War III, has already begun. To him it is quite natural that having grown used to war, people should not want it to end. The haze of malnutrition and disease blurs in his mind the distinctions between life and death, war and peace. While trudging across a marshy wasteland, he encounters the body of a kamikaze pilot and puts his fingers in its mouth; the body bites him.

Jim and the surviving internees are eventually taken to a sports stadium which has been appropriated by the Japanese and used to store looted cars and furniture. Jim munches grains of rancid rice and wanders among living and partly living bodies, surrounded by commandeered limousines and bleachers filled with wardrobes and dining tables. From this surreal setting he sees the lurid glow of the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki, 400 miles away.

After his release, Jim scavenges for cigarettes, spam, dried milk and magazines dropped from American planes, until he is abruptly ordered into a truck and taken to meet his parents, who seem "older and far away." The novel ends when Jim is sent by boat to a public school in England, presumably to continue honing his survival skills--the strangest and iciest twist of all.

Empire of the Sun throws up occasional gems. Jim sees, early on. a Chinese teapot three stories high built entirely from green bricks. . . . it had been holed by shellfire and now resembled a punchtured globe of the earth. Thousands of the bricks had migrated across the surrounding fields to the villages beside the works canal, incorporated in the huts and dwellings, a vision of a magical rural China.

But the novel doesn't yield such treasures willingly. This is a self-contained universe, where things happen slowly and in strict sequence. At times Empire of the Sun resembles the static, hermetically sealed, artificial worlds of Wyndham Lewis's novels, where the ups and downs, the climaxes and emotional tension of fiction are bled out in the interests of constructing a clinical and efficient narrative. Ballard's technique is fiction's equivalent of the robot car factory.

Ballard casts few veils over his own history in this autobiographical novel. The most obvious departure he makes from what really happened is in editing out his parents. Playing it as straight as he can, he limits his urge to make the story taller but allows himself the liberty of bizarre similes to express the strangeness of the experience: "The rotting coffins projected from the loose earth like a chest of drawers."

It may be true that schoolboys of Jim's age and background don't think about their parents much and inhabit violent dream worlds, but it is amazing and perversely intriguing that an author should take as harrowing an experience as this and present it with such stylized impersonality. In his first venture beyond genre fiction, Ballard wears his pacemaker squarely on his sleeve.
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Author:Fox, Edward
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 26, 1985
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