J.G. Ballard’s Experimental Text Collages: His 1958 Foray into Avant-Garde Literature


Image by J. G. Bal­lard, via the British Library

J.G. Bal­lard became famous for his 1985 auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el Empire of the Sun (lat­er turned by Steven Spiel­berg into a major motion pic­ture). Before that, he became well-known for his con­tro­ver­sial, car-wreck-eroti­ciz­ing 1973 nov­el Crash (lat­er turned by David Cro­nen­berg into a semi-major motion pic­ture). Before that, he made cul­tur­al waves with the exper­i­men­tal 1970 col­lec­tion of “con­densed nov­els” The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion and the both post-apoc­a­lyp­tic and psy­cho­log­i­cal Drowned World tril­o­gy of the 1960s. Go just a bit deep­er back into the Bal­lard canon and you find a work, in its way, even more dar­ing still: 1958’s Project for a New Nov­el.

“Bal­lard formed the ‘nov­el’ from sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal mate­r­i­al cut from pro­fes­sion­al lit­er­a­ture,” says the page at the British Library where you can see images of the work, the process of whose com­po­si­tion bears a resem­blance to William Bur­roughs’ famous “cut-up writ­ing” tech­nique. “Let­ters, words and sen­tence frag­ments are past­ed onto back­ing sheets with glue. Their design visu­al­ly ref­er­ences every­day media, with head­lines, body text and dou­ble-page spreads sug­gest­ing a mag­a­zine lay­out. Orig­i­nal­ly Bal­lard planned to dis­play the work on bill­boards, as if it was a pub­lic adver­tise­ment.”

Bal­lard him­self described the Project as “sam­ple pages of a new kind of nov­el, entire­ly con­sist­ing of mag­a­zine-style head­lines and lay­outs, with a delib­er­ate­ly mean­ing­less text, the idea being that the imag­i­na­tive con­tent could be car­ried by the head­lines and over­all design, so mak­ing obso­lete the need for a tra­di­tion­al text except for vir­tu­al­ly dec­o­ra­tive pur­pos­es.”


Image by J. G. Bal­lard, via the British Library

Employ­ment at a Lon­don chem­i­cal soci­ety jour­nal gave him access not just to pho­to­copy­ing facil­i­ties (then a rar­i­ty) but the mag­a­zine Chem­i­cal and Engi­neer­ing News, which became his basic mate­r­i­al: “I liked the styl­ish typog­ra­phy. I also like the sci­en­tif­ic con­tent, and used sto­ries to pro­vide the text of my nov­el. Curi­ous­ly enough, far from being mean­ing­less, the sci­ence news sto­ries some­how become fic­tion­al­ized by the head­ings around them.”

That quote comes from an arti­cle by Rick McGrath at jgballard.ca, who points out that “many of the char­ac­ters and con­cerns in Project have resur­faced over the years” in his sub­se­quent writ­ings such as The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion and The Ter­mi­nal Beach: “Ballard’s ‘col­lage of things’ spawned such char­ac­ters as Coma, Kline and Xero, and such phras­es as ‘the ter­mi­nal beach’, ‘Mr F is Mr F’, ‘tho­racic drop’ ‘inter­time’ ‘T‑12’ and many more Bal­lar­dian tropes now famil­iar to his read­ers today.”

Though Bal­lard’s work remained imag­i­na­tive in a way that no oth­er writer has repli­cat­ed, he nev­er, after the Project for a New Nov­el and the pieces of 1970s fol­low-up Adver­tis­er’s Announce­ments (“ ‘ads’ in the same sense that Project For A New Nov­el is a ‘nov­el‘”), got so exper­i­men­tal again. “Fas­ci­nat­ed with the causal­i­ty of time, Ballard’s first step is to remove it. Bored with action/reaction, Bal­lard inverts it,” writes McGrath. “Unwill­ing to accept the fic­tions of the world, Bal­lard cre­ates a per­son­al real­i­ty. The result is an autop­sy report, or a box of tools, or a line­up of ser­vice sta­tion atten­dants at a police sta­tion. It’s up to you to make a kind of per­son­al sense of it all” — a bit like the mod­ern world itself.

via The Scofield

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Very First Film of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Star­ring Bal­lard Him­self (1971)

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Bal­lard Pre­dicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

J.G. Bal­lard on Sen­sa­tion

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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