Character Continuations

I’ve just finished reading the superb Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard – more of a memorial read for his recent passing. A very accessible Ballard novel, dissecting the psychologies of the residents of a Spanish holiday resort and again going in-depth at how surroundings shape us. But I couldn’t help notice that one of the minor characters reminded me of another one of Ballard’s from The Drowned World. Something about the dialogue, the attitude, the mannerism, if not his actions.

And it’s something I’ve noticed, now and then, and a fact that isn’t a problem, more of a curiousity: do writers recycle, subconsciously, the same characters throughout their writing history?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

4 replies on “Character Continuations”

Hey Mark

Characterization and dialogue were not Ballard’s strong points. But then they weren’t really the point of his writing.

Most of the central characters of his novels tend to be middle-aged male professionals: doctors, pilots, architects, advertising executives; men who’ve achieved everything the world has asked of them, and yet still yearn for more. They then are more than prepared to act out the role of explorer in the new psychological territory Ballard attempts to map in his stories. It’s also worth noting that this is the kind of role Ballard himself could be expecting to fill until he junked doctoring to become a writer.

Ballard’s dialogue is almost always flat, if not plain boring to read. But the tension it creates with the interior meltdown of his characters in response to the exterior alteration in their surroundings can sometimes be amusing: as if the everyday blandness of their musings was an attempt to signify that this is all perfectly normal.

His last four novels: Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come read like the same novel with merely a different modern setting. A British holiday resort in Spain; a gated community in France; a square in Kensington; a shopping mall near Woking.

In Ballard’s case, like, say Phil Dick, the constant exploration of similar territory was not subconscious, I’d argue, but a constant refinement, an attempt to look at the same place from different fictional angles. Or perhaps they just couldn’t escape their obsessions.

A question for you: Ballard makes me moody after reading him for days afterwards, like he has a direct line to my subconscious. In the various tributes to him a few other writers have suggested they had similar experiences upon reading his work. How about you?

Hey Colbie,

Thanks for the comments, and you raise some very interesting points. Of course, the importance of exploring psychological states being essential in his texts, I’m beginning to think that his exploration of his own self was indeed crucial in his limited scope. That his books were all simply maps of himself, or culture from his perspective.

With regards to his bland dialogue etc., I always put that down to it being a very British thing; a dryness of that strata of class he was writing about, perhaps? There certainly is a very British dignity in that sense of normality you highlighted.

To my shame, I’ve never really got on with much Phil K.D. (I think it was the pulpy prose) so I’m by no means an authority on that; but I can very much understand that as a refinement process. I understand some of the later Ballard books were not that well-received, which leads me to think his refinement was unsuccessful.

Funny you mention the moody after-effects; I’m still carrying the book around in my head now. For me, I think it’s down to two things: he’s a very visual writer; and his descriptions really are wonderful. Yet he also explores the human states succinctly, but in depth. M John Harrison is very similar, as is Don DeLillo. That sort of writing always leaves me with an echo.

Hey Mark

I think it was Will Self who said that ‘Dick was long on good ideas but short on good writing’. I used to think this was unfair, having fallen for Dick and devoured almost everything he wrote in my early twenties.

Indeed the writing is substandard if you’re looking for style or atmosphere. I’d argue, however, that his characterization was second to none (some of his characters’ responses to their situations have brought tears to my eyes) and that his exploration of ordinary (often blue collar) people in SF – as opposed to your usual tough guys and gals – is overlooked by many.

The cream of his stuff is to be found in: VALIS, A Scanner Darkly, UBIK, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and, my personal favourite (and, though it is pulpy as hell, this book features the most moving description of love I’ve ever read) Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

And, lastly, Dick is hilarious. I read to my four-month-old daughter to get her to sleep at night. Obviously, it doesn’t matter what I read at her age. So the other night I read her the first chapter of VALIS. This chapter is about the suicide of a friend of the main character – HorseLover Fat (PKD’s name translated from the Latin/Greek, I think) – and I kept bursting out laughing. It’s funny and sad on the page – but read aloud, it breaks your heart and makes you guffaw uncontrollably (and wake your daughter up!).

Can you ask any more from an author?

Okay, that’s my attempt to get you to give Dick another shot …

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