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Escape From Suburbia
on 18 October 2013
In `The Unlimited Dream Company', a disaffected aircraft cleaner and failed itinerant named `Blake' decides, on impulse, to steal a Cessna light aircraft. While flying over Shepperton, he has to put down in the Thames. He is, presumably, dead, but his death seems metaphoric. It's the end of a wrecked life and the start of something great and new, and so we have the start of a fantastic adventure. This Phoenix tale of fertility emerging from tragedy is a recurrent theme in J. G. Ballard's writing.
Actually, it's unclear whether `Blake' is really dead or traversing through this novel in some kind of dream (perhaps resulting from a comatic state), or indeed whether this is just a simple fantasy novel. I think the author is leaving that to the reader to decide, but I for one would favour the dream theory. Hints are given here and there. For instance, at one point Blake refers to "streamers of still flying blood" - suggesting that events are taking place within a dream. In the process of this `dream', `Blake' becomes what could best be described as a spiritual energy force, giving life to the dreary and humdrum suburban surroundings, which are terraformed miraculously at `Blake' sleight of hand into a veritable tropicopia, spawning all kinds of exotic flora and fauna, including brilliant tucans and flamingos and the type of snakes more usually seen in the jungle. `Blake' manages to exoticise the people of Shepperton too. They dream the same dreams as `Blake' and, like him, metamorphose into magnificent birds that are able to soar freely above Shepperton, and sea creatures that swim in the river, thus re-capturing the freedom from ordinariness that `Blake' sought when he first stole the Cessna.
The character `Blake' is also an obvious allusion to William Blake, the famous English poet. The religious, pagan and philosophic parables here are also fairly obvious, including heavy symbolic references to the creation myth (Adam and Eve), the karmic undulations of life, paganism, Buddhism and reincarnation. In `The Unlimited Dream Company', we are all one spirit force, united and in that way restricted - but our collective potential is, thus, `unlimited' in a quite literal sense. Ballard is well-known (and well-liked) as a surrealist author, and the sine qua non of that literary style is the avant-garde. While I certainly knew what to expect here, I must admit that I found much of the cutting-edge stuff in the middle part of the book - in which `Blake' describes his `sexual' fantasies - very difficult reading indeed. Some of it alluded to paedophilia. I suppose I am just a product of my time, but I am disgusted by that sort of thing and so I found those parts of the book nauseous - and I am by no means a sensitive soul or close-minded. On the other hand, I suppose this is a necessary element in the psychological journey that `Blake' has embarked on. Suffice it to say that the term 'polymorphous perversity' could have been invented to describe this novel.
Ballad himself lived in Shepperton and this probably influenced him greatly in writing this work but it's also perhaps important to note that Shepperton is, or at least was at the time this novel was written, a fairly ordinary, though affluent, middle-class suburb, with the added interesting feature of a film studio. I find the very ordinariness of the location quite significant to any analysis. The spiritualist and surrealist interpretation has been worn into cliché in the various reviews of this book: i.e. the protagonist's powers and bodhicitta state of mind puts him in touch with all sentient beings who desire and perfect awakening and enlightenment, etc. But what few - if any - discuss is any possible materialist meaning to be derived from this work. As he seeds life in various ways and also acts as the final repository of all life-forces which he sucks into himself, `Blake' is not just symbolically messianic, but also authoritative. What some might interpret as the exploration of sexual innocence, others might see as licentiousness, which can be used as a manipulative force by powerful figures in society. The jungle seems like a new world, representing the power of dreams in catalysing change, and the people of Shepperton begin to lose their inhibitions and attachment to material things. Only two characters in the novel, `Stark' (the zoo owner) and `Miriam St. Cloud' (a medical doctor) seem sufficiently strong-willed to resist Blake's life-force and are for a time immune to his persuasions. Blake is a sinister kind of demagogue. I must admit to having a very uneasy feeling about this book. One almost has the sense that `Blake' is on some kind of power trip. He does not tolerate disagreement or dissent from the other characters and is capable of quite shocking cruelty.
'Father Wingate', a hobbyist in palaeontology, provides Blake's moral counterpoint and a constant source of justification or encouragement of Blake's actions, no matter how immoral or depraved. When Blake in the end returns back into himself, like an Ouroboros, ready to be re-animated in the future, it is the fossil ground dug by 'Father Wingate' that he chooses. The oneiric `Blake' was able to fly anywhere, but in reality, `Blake' cannot leave and must return to the ground from whence he came, just as we cannot leave and are trapped in our armour-plated, concrete corpse called 'reality'. This may be what death is like and Blake's dream is what happens after death.
Ballard is the `author's author', a logophile whose prose is like word-poetry. Most who read these reviews and pick up a Ballard book will already be familiar with his style, his interest in the surreal and the avant-garde, but just in case you do not fall into that category, a friendly warning: while Ballard was a truly great writer, you should probably give him a miss if you are easily offended.