J.G. Ballard’s The Kindness Of Women

Seven years after J.G. Ballard published his semi-autobiographical World War II novel Empire Of The Sun, about his experiences as a young boy in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, he delivered a sequel that seemed to upend so much of what made the original a commercial and critical success. The young Jamie “Jim” Graham, having survived the Japanese invasion of China and a stint in a prison camp, must now find some equilibrium in the post-war years, first at Cambridge University, then in Canada as an aspiring pilot, and finally back in England, as a husband and father. If Empire Of The Sun gave readers a taste of war through the eyes of a child, an innocent’s insight into the horrors of death, its sequel looks inward, at the scars these wartime experiences left behind.

The first clue to the more mature tone comes in the opening pages, which summarize the events depicted in Empire Of The Sun, with one notable difference: Jim’s Russian nanny, a teenage girl named Olga, habitually undresses in his bathroom, leaving the door ajar. The boy Jim is too young for these experiences to take on a sexual nature, but this is the first of what will become a recurring theme throughout the book: the proximity, even intermingling, of sex and death. “To my child’s eyes,” writes Ballard, “which had seen nothing else, Shanghai was a waking dream where everything I could imagine had already been taken to its extreme.” It is at the level of metaphor that he makes the reader aware of this pairing, juxtaposing some gruesome scene of death with a child’s limited frame of reference. Thus: “Abandoned trenchworks ran between the burial mounds, from which open coffins protruded like drawers in a ransacked wardrobe.” The metaphor is not only visually apt but appropriate to the perception of a child – so appropriate that it might even be said to undermine the horror of what is being described. A psychologist might diagnose Jim with PTSD, but our young narrator has no such outside help, and when we next catch up with him, in England, we immediately encounter once more the pairing of sex and death. “Women dominated my years at Cambridge,” Jim writes, ” […] but none more than Dr. Elizabeth Grant. During my first term at the university I saw her naked every day, and I knew her more intimately than any other woman in my life. But I never embraced her.” Dr. Grant is a corpse, a cadaver upon which Cambridge medical students like Jim learn human anatomy, but what begins as a morbid joke on his part becomes something of a psychological disturbance when he begins to describe living women – girlfriends, lovers and prostitutes – in equally clinical terms. Here, for example, is Ballard’s description of a casual tryst, in which the woman cooly demands: “Don’t bother to fuck me. Just bugger me.” What follows is a typical description of sex in a novel, I remind you, entitled The Kindness Of Women:

She knelt on the carpet, her chest and shoulders across the cushions. Spitting on her fingers, she pushed the saliva into her anus with one hand, testing my penis with the other. I hesitated to enter her, nervous of tearing her scarred anus, but she pressed my penis into her, adding more spit between the gasps of pain. When I was fully inside her she at last relaxed, and her rectum was as soft as the vagina of a child-bearing woman. She buried her face among the teddy bears and brought her wrists behind her back, inviting me to force them to her shoulder blades. I moved carefully, trying to control her prolapsing rectum, gently forcing her arms as she wanted, picking the hairs from her mouth as she shouted to me, an eager, desperate child.

It is difficult to imagine Steven Spielberg choosing to film the sequel, however successful Empire Of The Sun was as a film, no? This passage might accurately be described as pornographic, in the sense that it is lurid and graphic, but it is not designed to titillate the reader; on the contrary, it is meant to be revolting, or at least jarring, for this is what sex stripped of emotion is. I am reminded of a passage from Emil Cioran, one of my favourite cynics:

Consider love: is there a nobler outpouring, a rapture less suspect? Its shudders rival music, complete with the tears of solitude and of ecstasy: sublime, but a sublimity inseparable from the urinary tract: transports bordering upon excretion, a heaven of the glands, sudden sanctity of the orifices…

Cioran is having fun with his readers, but Ballard’s narrator does not appreciate the irony; he is trapped in a personal hell, one that has permanently altered his perception of the world, and so much of his behavior – from the thrill-seeking flight of the combat pilot, to the orgiastic sex with prostitutes, to the experimentation with psychotropic drugs – amounts to little more than a desperate attempt to escape the trauma of his childhood.

Couched beneath this personal odyssey lies a powerful criticism of the 1960s, the decade of decadence Ballard describes as a “ten-year pharmaceutical trial” that was “force-feeding a diet of violence and sensation” into the numbed brains of the masses. Another character will remark, unaware of the irony Ballard is infusing into his words: “Activities of the human brain it’s needed the whole of evolution to control are here let out to play. I love it.” Ballard’s narrator is the living embodiment of that experiment, a man whose early experiences with death have numbed him to life, put him at odds with existence. Kafka, in his diaries, had advice for such a person, advice that Ballard evidently followed:

Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate… but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.

This is the fate of Ballard’s narrator, to be dead in his own lifetime, but what a record he has left behind him.