Top critical review
10 people found this helpful
Other People Are The Most Threatening Disease Of All
on 15 February 2009
JG Ballard is the charter of obscene modernity, of social breakdown and social control, consumerist pathology and ecological destruction. The appeal of his work is precisely its ambiguity - a great attraction to the machinery and possibilities of the modern, laced with a deep suspicion of its forms and consequences. For Ballard, the trappings of civilization try to supress something essential in us (aggression, madness, fornication, hierarchy), which is actually only rearticulated in a new variation on these themes. In a way, his entire canon can be read as a set of dramas based on Freud's 'Civilization And Its Discontents'. Politically, there is obviously a tension here. As well as a critique of consumer capitalism, atomised social existence and technological folly, Ballard can also be read as a Hobbesian essentialist, forever warning that when the controlling institutions of government collapse, so do the very possibilities of human existence.
Many of these familiar themes are central to 'Hello America', which falls mainly within the strand of Ballardian thought that concerns ecology ('The Drowned World' or 'The Drought') but peppers it with some ruminations on society that are more associated with his work on the contemporary ('High Rise' or 'Cocaine Nights'). In it, an expedition of Europeans explore an America long abandoned and reduced to desert by the collapse of its oil-sustained economy and society. Like Ballard, these individuals all have a love for America as a land of discovery and possibility. But the series of disasters that befall them have more to do with attempts to realise those dreams than with destroyed American in the first place.
All this is great conceptual stuff, and Ballard writes, as always, in a smooth and easily engaging style. Which is part of the problem. I found myself wanting 'Hello America' to be a more convaluted read, to induce in me the kinds of sensations I got from reading 'Crash' or 'The Atrocity Exhibition' - a language and structure worthy of its narrative. Instead, everything happens just a bit too easily.
There is also an obvious dating here - this book is from 1981 and its imaginary landscapes and dilemmas reflect those times (the presidency of Richard Milhouse Nixon, the Cold War, Charles Manson, city-destroying nuclear weapons) as much as themes that still resonate today (oil shocks, authoritarian power, environmental decline). None of this is helped by a slightly heavy-handed approach to the American survivors, who are given individual names taken from the old corporate beasts (such as Xerox, GM, Pepsodent and Heinz) and assigned clans named after the social classes of the forgotten America (The Bureaucrats, The Divorcees, The Astronauts). The allegory is clear enough but doesn't quite function as it might.
None of this is to suggest that 'Hello America' is a bad book. It has many qualities and a suprisingly thrilling narrative. But it is not a touch on the other greats, which remain the standard for what the Ballardian can do for your mind.