THE INNER MAN: THE LIFE OF JG BALLARD
James Graham (J.G.) Ballard is rightly regarded as one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. Although many people know him from Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s novels such as Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition were groundbreaking literary works. He synthesized such disparate influences as Surrealist art, medical pathology texts, and advertising techniques into a unique style that straddled the line between science fiction and experimental literature. In the 90s, RE/Search Publications released a series of Ballard texts, including novels, biographical materials, and a book of quotations. Many of these works are framed in a reverential manner that expresses confidence in Ballard as both an accomplished author and public intellectual. John Baxter’s recent biography—The Inner Man: the Life of J G Ballard—operates on the exact opposite principle. Its main focus is on deconstructing the Ballard mythos.
The Inner Man suggests that the public view of Ballard’s life is built upon a foundation of truth, lies, and self-mythologizing. John Baxter’s contrarian stance leads him to revealing and interesting paths. For example, the first four chapters are focused on Ballard’s youth in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s.Baxter tests all of Ballard’s recollections—particularly those put forth in Empire of the Sun—against all available evidence. If Ballard claimed to have read works of a certain author, Baxter cross-references publication dates of those books and inquires as to whether Ballard actually had access to the books. The Inner Man overflows with this kind of intense scrutiny of Ballard’s life.
Baxter’s clinical—and sometimes scathing—approach reveals many useful facts and insights. The Inner Man is particularly useful in its exploration of Ballard’s familial background, his personal relationships, and less publicized aspects of his career (e.g. his brief experiments as a screen writer). Of course, there is nothing wrong with vetting facts. This is expected and encouraged. The problem with Baxter’s approach is one of perspective. Although Baxter was a contemporary of Ballard in the early ’60s science-fiction realm, Ballard was not interviewed for the book—he died in April of 2009. None of Ballard’s family members were interviewed. Much of The Inner Man is based on interviews with Ballard’s friends and associates such as Michael and Linda Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Ian Sinclair and numerous others as well as existing essays, articles, and news materials.
The Inner Man: the Life of J G Ballard fills a useful gap in the field of Ballard scholarship. Baxter’s critical approach leads him into areas that friendlier and more fawning writers have avoided. Unfortunately, a lack of balance and the absence of Ballard’s own voice prevents The Inner Man from fulfilling its full potential. The book is best absorbed in conjunction with other materials like the previously mentioned texts from RE/Search. The ultimate Ballard biography has yet to be written. At this point, it seems unlikely that such a book will ever be written.