I have a complicated relationship with the novels of J G Ballard. I am drawn to his concepts; they always sound like stories I will love, but there is something in his style that deeply unsettles me. I come away feeling defensive, as though I have been spoken to in an arrogant and assertive manner, and sometimes even physically sick, but somehow I always end up reading more.
Now I have read The Drowned World, I believe I have identified the root of this strange feeling. I tried hard to find a particular quote from C G Jung at this point: I know it is in Memories, Dreams, Reflections but short of re-reading the whole book I couldn’t find what I was looking for in time for this review. Somewhere in that book, Jung refers to the voice of the unconscious mind coming across as pompous and blunt. That is what I think J G Ballard’s trick is; he speaks from, and to, the unconscious mind.
The Drowned World is a future vision in which global warming has melted our ice caps, raising the water level and submerging cities. The remaining liveable areas are taken over by jungle and large reptiles, and resources are depleting. The story follows main character Kerens through his decisions on how to survive.
Apart from being a potent warning about climate change, The Drowned World is an attempt to demonstrate the workings of Jungian psychology in a story setting. The animus, the shadow, the introvert/extrovert, the collective unconscious, and the self are all recognisable here and the narrator is quite open about that in the text. But this is no straight forward psychology; it is the psychology of humanity under extreme stress.
‘This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.’
The problem with this book for me, is that despite fitting all of these ideas into a mere 200 pages, and furnishing it with beautifully written descriptions to boot, it is boring. The pace is slow, there is very little suspense, and I honestly didn’t care one way or another about the characters. It lacks drive, which is a huge shame because it has so much potential.
Around half way through, I was doubting whether the signature dark feeling I both love and hate would make an appearance at all. Being Ballard’s first novel it wouldn’t be so surprising. But, like the moon pulling up waves, the book did make that feeling surface in me around two thirds in. It happened suddenly, and I marvelled at that, desperate to know how it was done. Looking back at the passages it snook in through, there is an increase in the number of archetypal symbols used and a more primitive sort of action and reaction takes place. It truly is Jungian psychology in practice, both on the page and in the reader as he experiences it.
‘His unconscious was rapidly becoming a well-stocked pantheon of tutelary phobias and obsessions, homing on to his already over-burdened psyche like lost telepaths. Sooner or later the archetypes themselves would become restive and start fighting each other, anima against persona, ego against id…’
I found this effect utterly fascinating, and in many ways Ballard is the kind of writer I aspire to be. His books are like postmodern art installations that appear to be plain but provoke a reaction without us really knowing why. Still, I find myself divided. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading The Drowned World; to be honest it was a slog to finish. But I respect it.
At the end of the edition I read, there is a short but insightful interview with the author, so to end this review I want to share a piece of his advice:
‘I am very grateful that I did start my career as a writer writing short stories because you really learn your craft. You can also explore yourself; if you write a huge number of short stories it doesn’t take you long to realize you have certain strengths and weaknesses and that your imagination leans towards one corner of the compass. I think young writers today are tempted into writing novels far too early.’
I find that comforting as a writer of short fiction working on my first novel, so perhaps you will too.