The Drowned World – J G Ballard

Book Review

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.

18 thoughts on “The Drowned World – J G Ballard

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  1. I suspect that your book reviews contain just as much profound insight as the books themselves. It’s funny, but I sort of have a complicated relationship with Jung. I find his philosophy fascinating and his psychology impeccable, but sometimes in his enthusiasm to embrace concepts outside the realm of science, he tended to buy into supernatural ideas without much proof…which is surprising, considering how meticulous he was in questioning himself in his essays on synchronicity. He was also a very early and vocal supporter of the very questionable philosophy (theology) behind Alcoholics Anonymous. Quite a conundrum.

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    1. Thank you. I’m a big fan of Jung, he has a lot to do with the way I see the world. His work on individuation has been a great help to me in finding my path in particular. I do take your point on his tendency to buy into the supernatural, which certainly didn’t help him defend his quest to have psychology considered a science, but there comes a point where faith in your own experiences can push you onwards spiritually.

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  2. Great review Orchid! I’m a Ballard superfan and I totally agree TDW is one of his slower novels… I’d recommend empire of the sun or the unlimited dream company or concrete island which still have the same lyrical use of language but are more narratively driven and not quite so somber. As for his psychology allusions his work is seeping with it, he once expressed that it was his intent was to create a form of Sci Fi where ‘outer space becomes inner space’, and so we have these characters whose individual, subjective pathologies serve the same function as alternate worlds and galaxies.. so cool! Also if you like Jung I highly recommend his ‘Liber Novus’, which is his own plummet through his subconscious which is fascinating. Thanks for your continued great and creative blog posts 🙂

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    1. Thank you for taking time to comment, and for your kind words.

      I didn’t like The Unlimited Dream Company – well, I had a love/hate relationship with it similar to what I describe in the opening paragraph of this review. The other two are on my TBR list though, because I still want to read more from this fascinating author despite my complicated relationship with him!

      As for Jung, his Red Book is one of my absolute favourite reads. I have a beautiful full colour folio copy and it’s a real treasure 😊

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      1. Wow I wish I had one of those! they’re like hundreds of pounds online! I’ve had to settle for the readers edition, but all the text is still in there and there’s a copy of the pictorial one in my university library so I’ve taken lots of pictures of it 😀

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  3. I am not going to lie; I feel like a real dumb-dumb after reading your post because I don’t know who J G Ballard is and am going to have to google what half of the words above even mean. Like, right now I am lost in the world of Harry Potter and am trying to figure out what scoundrel put his name in the Goblet of Fire in an attempt to kill him – I hope to find out tonight. Yipeee! But, I loved this post because you introduced me to an author who is obviously very influential, whether you are a fan or not. My post secondary education was film school and plain old life, but I feel like you and Paul are going to provide me the college education I didn’t receive all those years ago. I very much appreciate that you shared Ballard’s advice for new writers – it hit home. Blogging most certainly is helping in that department, but I have so much to learn. Thanks for teaching me a little more today!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you appreciated the advice and the author recommendation (of sorts). Sorry for all the psychology jargon, if it’s any consolation I feel much the same about Harry Potterisms because – shock, horror – I’ve never read it 😨

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      1. Don’t say sorry, I totally enjoyed your jargon. It makes me want to learn more. Harry Potter is so fun and is a magical ride I am thoroughly enjoying. JK Rowling, in my mind, is a genius and has made me want to enrol in Hogwarts!


  4. The “writing novels too early” idea is fascinating to me, because it took me ten years to write my first one after inception. I’d also often think of ideas when I was much younger that I knew I didn’t have the life experience or wherewithal to write. Even waiting the decade to write the first novel (and I did write quite a few short stories first), I currently still need to do a major overhaul on it five or so years later. I think there are some concepts that require more maturity and life experience.

    I also understand not liking a book per se, but respecting it. It is an odd juxtaposition. I’ve been in the situation before, though currently I can’t think of any examples. I have read many books that have high potential that fell flat in execution. It is disappointing and feels like a missed masterpiece.

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    1. I agree that some concepts need maturity and life experience, the subjects I am tackling now couldn’t have been done well by teenage me even though she probably thought they could at the time… I’m finding that writing short stories and flash fiction regularly is really helping me to find my style and niche, which is feeding into the way I am approaching the novel. Hopefully I will achieve a more polished result than if I had gone straight in at the deep end.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly how I feel. I had some very grandiose ideas even as a child, but I knew I didn’t have the life experiences to write them, and now decades later, they’re no longer my interest, which is perfectly fine!

        People really don’t understand how difficult short stories and flash fiction can be. It’s quite hard to convey a convincing plot in fewer words, so I always love reading flash fiction or microstories, a few of which I’ve written myself. There’s a Twitter hashtag for #microstory, and many of them are just plain amazing.

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