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Reader’s Den, Biblio File

The Terminal Beach

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This is the final week of the March Reader's Den! We've been reading The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard incompletely, but nothing is truly complete of course without appropriating its own finitude!

Let's consider a few thoughts/questions before wrapping up...

1) All sensationalism aside, what can we make of this "story"? Stylistically, we can see this piece is a major departure from earlier works by Ballard, and yet the preoccupation with sexual desire, science, and pop culture continues here. The story describes a host of experiments conducted on 'patients' to scientifically (objectively) understand the psychosexual appeal of the then California Governor, Ronald Reagan. While not making any political statement whatsoever, perhaps Ballard is positing the subjectivity involved with any "symbolic" figure (here, a representative political entity named Ronald Reagan) is rife with sadomasochistic, perverse, and deeply repressed collective human desires, and scientific investigation into that subjectivity can only occur as bizarrely 'cold,' clinical and insectual. What can we walk away with after reading this piece?

2) Here again, with the story, "The Life and Death of God" we experience the same collision between objectivity and subjectivity. With more than a little bit of tongue in his cheek, Ballard opens the story with the earnest description of how world faiths actually unite together with the firm knowledge of a Supreme Being's existence. Of course, social entropy and fallout entails: political congresses disassemble, people lose in their jobs, and "everywhere the results of this new sense of morality, of the virtues and charity, were becoming clear." Eventually, scientists who first "objectively" identified the godhead are asked to reconsider their original findings, and the United Faith Assembly gains power.

Can we read this story as a simplistic cautionary tale against the dangers of theocracy, or as a dialectic questioning of the idea of allowing science to completely narrativize reality to us within modernity? Isn't humanity's disavowal of previous "religious" forms following the discovery of the actual existence of God something akin to faith or faith-like behavior as well?

3) In "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown," "The Index," and "The Theatre of War," we see Ballard now radically playing with form. While the obscurantist effect of hiding a narrative or discernible plot beneath a barrage of details, numbers, lists, and displaced text is undoubtedly present, does Ballard's invocation of mass media and the confusing volume of sheer information reveal a larger thematic quality that today, now let's us use the adjective "Ballardian"?

Ballard walks the line between the pulpy, readable paperback sci-fi genre and the difficult, obtuse and abstruse writers of postmodernism: after exploring his short stories and their multitude of variety, I highly encourage you to check out some of his novels, Kingdom Come, Super-Cannes, and of course, Crash.

Thank you for reading!

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