If you asked me two weeks ago whether I’d read The Drowned World, I’d probably reply with an emphatic “heh?” similar in timbre to the Aflac duck. If you told me two weeks ago that I’d be writing a blog post with “Literary Favorites” and “The Drowned World” in the title–same response. Particularly if you told me the book was at home in the SciFi section of the particular bookstore where I got my copy. I now recognize that I’ve been remiss in my complete ignorance of J.G. Ballard for the first twenty-three years of my life, because despite the fact that it’s “science fiction,” the prose–specifically the description– is (and this opinion is also held because the book is so fresh in my mind and was so new to me and unlike what I usually read) nonpareil.
I didn’t mark up my copy of The Drowned World, and I chose not to for two reasons: I like the way the copy looks clean–the cover art is (for lack of a better phrase) fucking sexy. And, if I marked up every passage that left me awestruck, the whole damn book would be underlined and highlighted and circled and annotated to a disgusting degree. So, just flipping to random (maybe not so random, I do recall these passages in particular without the aid of annotation) pages, here are some of the passages that floored me:
There was the philosophical self-doubt and uncertainty after Kerans’ dive with Strangman, “Had he unconsciously locked the air pipe, knowing that the tension in the cable would suffocate him, or had it been a complete accident, even , possibly an attempt by Strangman to injure him? But for the rescue by the two skin divers (perhaps he had counted on them setting out after him when the telephone cable was disconnected) he would certainly have found the answer. His reasons for making the dive at all remained obscure. There was no doubt that he had been impelled by a curious urge to place himself at Strangman’s mercy, almost as if he were staging his own murder.”
And there was the description of the reptilian take-over of the drowned world. “As their seats in the one-time board rooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life. Looking up at the ancient impassive faces, Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, re-kindling archaic memories of the terrifying jungles of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it.”
Finally, and in the same vein: “Nothing endures for so long as fear. Everywhere in nature one sees evidence of innate releasing mechanisms literally millions of years old, which have lain dormant through thousands of generations but retained their power undiminished. The field rat’s inherited image of the hawk’s silhouette is the classic example – even a paper silhouette drawn across a cage sends it rushing frantically for cover. And how else can you explain the universal but completely groundless loathing of the spider, only one species of which has ever been known to sting? Or hatred of snakes and reptiles? Simply because we all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form.”
Why have I neglected Ballard? What else have I overlooked? I think of the sockdolagers I’m usually drawn to: Infinite Jest, The Brothers Karamazov (which I’ve not yet finished and will not pretend that I did), and even the Kafka–which isn’t so long page-wise as it is loaded word-by-word–and Ballard doesn’t seem at home in this crowd. The book isn’t even 200 pages, but it isn’t a beach-read (I’ve never picked up and never will pick up a beach read). But the prose isn’t such that you’re left scratching your head and re-reading. One page of Infinite Jest has that effect–because that one page also just might contain a footnote that extends for ten pages. Ballard is a different species. His prose is such that you’re left gawking, picking your jaw up off the floor–but still re-reading–the way you do a double-take when an exceptionally attractive woman saunters past on the sidewalk and you want to revisit her in your peripheral vision.
The characters, too, are exceptional. Kerans, the protagonist, is relatable on a level that’s both unfamiliar yet all too much. As he navigates the dystopia of the drowned world, he’s torn between urges–stuck between ideas of time–the urge to regress (and move south toward the equator, which is more or less parts unknown) vs. the urge to progress (move north and try to survive in the cooler temperatures) vs. the urge to bide his time without doing either. We see Colonel Riggs representing the former camp and Hardman, who absconds on his on toward the equator and is reunited with Kerans at the end, though Hardman is too fucked mentally at that point to remember the man.
But it is Strangman. Strangman the evil albino commander of the reptilians. Strangman the looter of drowned worlds. Strangman the genius who is untouchable in his value to Colonel Riggs & co, yet unforgivably Mephistophelean. He is the love-child of Mr. Kurtz and McCarthy’s Judge Holden. He has command over all things evil, a strangle-hold and the fear-laden respect of figures such as Big Caesar, the monstrous black man who does his bidding. He wears white, his skin lacks pigmentation, his smile glistens unnaturally in a world where the likes of Kerans are constantly described as bronze and lean.
The Drowned World explores, with the vividest of imagery, humanity’s fall from top dog to helpless lemmings, running from the reptilian reign of terror. It’s horrifying yet enthralling. It’s so clearly science-fiction, yet not that far off. But Ballard’s power isn’t in his Nostradamus-esque eye for what’s to come. It’s in his conveyance. His believability. His images. And the best way to understand is to pick up a copy and spend your Sunday afternoon chomping it down like an alligator, in one bite.