About James Warner

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular

 

Articles by James Warner

This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

Is the world riding a wild horse? Read Mark Helprin to understand American Republicanism

Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, can be read as an elegy for the American Century. Helprin’s emphasis on invidividual responsibility, as well as his backwards-lookingness, over-the-topness, and magical thinking, give us a window into the Republican Party he supports. 

Predators, Victims and Squarepegs: the moral universe of Irvine Welsh

In his fiction, Irvine Welsh asks how we can sustain a sense of community in a culture where pursuit of self-interest is proclaimed as the dominant virtue. Skagboys, the new prequel to Trainspotting, takes issue with the spiritual legacy of Thatcherism

The future of sex. Samuel R. Delany on working all that stuff out for yourself

2012-08-09_1652In the worlds Samuel R. Delany describes and creates, a sense of community is to be found chiefly in marginalized social spaces – here people are supportive of each other, free from sexual judgment or racial prejudice, and polyamorous. Delany's latest novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, continues his lifelong struggle against ready-made assumptions.

David Mamet, Gilad Atzmon and identity politics

There are unexpected similarities between two writers usually thought of as polar opposites. The author ends up wishing that each of them would write their version of an imagined encounter with the other.

Government Violence, Human Nature, and The Hunger Games

Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are young adult novels in which governments force teenagers to kill each other. Comparing these books to classic works by William Golding and Robert Sheckley suggests that, while becoming more skeptical about governments, we've become more trusting about our own nature.

Secret museums: Anita Desai and the desecrating gaze

In The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai meditates on the private and fragile nature of the creative act. Her nostalgic visions of India are also parables of the self's search for authenticity.

The long haul of solitary death: Michel Houellebecq and the decline of western sexuality

A prophet-provacateur faithful to French traditions of lucidity, sensuality, and alienation, Houellebecq believes we are all doomed. The Map and the Territory continues his great project of exposing the limits of individualism.

Dilbert's presidential bid: is technocracy dressed up as libertarianism the natural political home of the engineer?

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The definitive U.S. comic strip of the last two decades features workplace alienation, managerial dysfunction, and socio-economic stratification. Last month its creator announced he's running for President as an independent. His candidacy may not be serious, but how about his policies?

A pond full of tadpoles: memory and memorialization in Alan Hollinghurst's "A Stranger's Child"

In The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst explored the iconoclasm of the Thatcher years. But in A Stranger's Child, he seems to portray England as a country self-defeatingly focused on its past

Milan Kundera and the Invisible Tribunal

A recurring idea in the work of Milan Kundera is that the spirit of totalitarianism lives on in our mass media. In a world without privacy, will we all be perpetually on trial?

Translating Monsters into Songbirds: the Stories of Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is an Israeli author of urgent, cryptic, popular fiction. His fantasies can be read as coping strategies for a violent world of irresolvable moral ambiguities

Jennifer Egan and the Extraneous Center

Jennifer Egan's fiction asks whether our experience is now technologically mediated to the point that we routinely mistake the map for the territory. In her book A Visit from the Goon Squad, she evokes a world where the pressure constantly to self-reinvent threatens to erode our sense of identity.

All the frogs croak before a storm: Dostoevsky versus Tolstoy on Humanitarian Interventions

Dostoevsky was in favor of military intervention in the Balkans, Tolstoy opposed to it. The arguments they put forward are surprisingly relevant to our own current wars.

The Song of the Survivor: T.C. Boyle and Invasive Species Eradication Programs

Humans are the only species who feel we have a responsibility to other species. T.C. Boyle's fiction explores the dilemmas raised when our obligations to other species and organisms conflict

Literature's game changers: how the console moulds us and our fiction

html canvas video gameThe greatest novel has probably been written, while the greatest computer game is still almost certainly to come. Will the medium change us enough to turn itself into mainstream art, as the novel once did?

All her father's guns – an extract

The hero - or antihero - of James Warner's darkly comic novel All Her Father's Guns is Libertarian venture capitalist Cal Lyte. It is 2002, and Cal's ex-wife Tabytha is seeking the Republican nomination in an Arizonan Congressional district with a Democrat incumbent. In this scene, Cal drives from Nevada to Arizona to install listening devices in Tabytha's house, and to inform her he has tracked down their old Guatemalan nanny who was an illegal immigrant -- politically sensitive information he hopes will persuade her to drop her lawsuit against him for additional alimony. You can buy the book here

Co-existence between travellers. Damon Galgut's South African allegory

"In A Strange Room" is South African writer Damon Galgut's new collection of stories. The difficulty of coexistence between travellers trying to get along seems to speak to the current condition of his homeland.

Perfection on his own terms: Salinger's silence

J.D. Salinger died on the 27th of January, 2010. James Warner paints a portrait of the American writer's work - loved by the public but attacked by some critics - and his solitary life

The death of JG Ballard considered as an atrocity exhibition

J.G. Ballard grew up in 1930s Shanghai, a cosmopolitan center of international commerce torn by gang and civil warfare, and teeming with famine refugees. Chinese corpses floated in open sewers. Europeans drank heavily and rigorously observed the absurd formalities of colonial life.

James Warner has published stories in Ninth Letter, Night Train, Apostrophe Cast, and elsewhere. His personal website is here, and he blogs for Identity Theory on the site Everything Unfinished.After Pearl Harbor, this world was overturned, and from 1942 to 1945, Ballard and his family were interned by the Japanese in Lunghua camp, which he remembers in his autobiography Miracles of Life as "a prison where I found freedom." For a while, his boyhood heroes were kamikaze pilots, and he would never lose his masochistic fascination with technology.

He claimed he adapted so well to life in Lunghua camp that it was not until he got to England that he felt like a misfit. In Lunghua, Ballard shared close quarters with different classes of people, and the struggle to survive gave him a sense of purpose. The world outside the camp was now so chaotic and dangerous, he was grateful for the relative order the camp provided. But he witnessed many acts of casual brutality, disasters and atrocities he would revisit and transform endlessly in his work.

Ballard's protagonist in Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized account of his experience of Lunghua camp, deduces that, by the time one war is effectively over, another war has effectively begun. In Miracles of Life Ballard wrote, "August 1945 formed a strange interregnum when we were never wholly certain that the war had ended, a sensation that stayed with me for months and even years. To this day as I doze in an armchair I feel the same brief moment of uncertainty." Such extreme disorientation pervades his oeuvre, which can be seen as a slow working-through of the traumas of his youth. In The Kindness of Women Ballard wrote, "War was the means by which nations escaped from time."

By the age of fifteen, he had learned how readily people adapt to what was previously unthinkable, and at what cost, and was fully conscious, unusually for an English writer of his generation, of living in a post-colonial world. He had a visceral understanding that the sparkling technological facade of the modern world masks constant catastrophic change. The futures he created are completely untainted by nostalgia, cosiness, or sentimentality. A piece of deadpan dialog from his late novel Millenium People illustrates the classic Ballardian effect:

"The middle classes don't steal cars. It's a tribal thing, like not wearing a brown suit."

This throwaway line is casually unsettling on many levels. It suggests that not stealing cars is less an ethical prohibition than a matter of gang aesthetics. The word "tribal" forces us to see the English middle classes as a primitive and irrational alliance. And we are made to ask ourselves under what circumstances a middle class English person would in fact steal a car, to which the answer is - if society as we know it were to break down. This kind of shattering of assumptions is a constant feature of Ballard's prose, as if he is forever reliving the shattering of assumptions that accompanied the collapse of British power in East Asia.

After coming to England, Ballard studied medicine, then worked as a copywriter. Perhaps his advertising experience contributed to his strong feel for the power of the iconic, startling image. In his fiction, he fused the energy of the science fiction and surrealist movements to create a new kind of reading experience. He complained in an interview that "most mainstream twentieth-century novelists are still working with a nineteenth-century form that's concerned not with dynamic societies but with static societies where social nuance is still important." Ballard said that he took a prospective, as opposed to retrospective, view of the present-
"However much they may deny it, most people are made uneasy by a prospective view of the world around them-it seems to lack stability, certainty and continuity with the efforts of the past, and instead to be a place of rapidly changing currencies, bizarre images and apparently random or, far worse, inexplicable experiences."

Social trends that others would have dismissed as anomalous, Ballard extrapolated to the point of absurdity, projecting whatever is most disturbing about our world into the future. While he lived a stable suburban life in a semi-detached house in Shepperton for almost fifty years, in his work he followed the advice from Lord Jim-"In the destructive element immerse!"

His insightful fascination with technology, violence, and media studies won him a devoted following. Ballard's is a feverish post-imperial world, of arbitrary cruelties committed in landscapes of trauma, splattered with those traps for the psyche we call advertisements, amid technologically-driven social flux, and constant references to the ideal of escaping from time. Flight is a ubiquitous obsession, and cannibalism a constant possibility. Ballard's visions include the spaceship crashed in the wilderness, the submerged planetarium, the rioting tourists, the agoraphobic astronaut, the fetishistic collision, the motorist marooned on a roundabout, the civil war in a forty-story apartment building. His scenery is typically more eloquent than his protagonists, who always maintain a stiff upper lip, although they live in a catastrophically shifting world of climate change and unending paramilitary activity. Cars, planes, and spacecraft in his oeuvre have always crashed, the ground is treacherous underfoot and, moment to moment, nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing is ever seen in its usual context, and nothing is there for descriptive color - everything feels like an archetype.

One of Ballard's key insights is that an atrocity one is powerless to prevent becomes a kind of spectacle.

Algis Budrys complained in Galaxy that, in a Ballard catastrophe, "you are under no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it." But as David Pringle noted in his monograph "Earth is the Alien Planet," "Readers who complain that Ballard's characters do not ‘fight' the changes which overtake their worlds are missing the point: the true heroes are the men or women who follow the logic of the landscape." Ballard wrote studies of individuals adapting nonchalantly to uncanny surroundings. Somehow the solution his protagonists find to their problems is always to journey inward.

In clinical, obsessive prose, Ballard foresaw the blurring of news, entertainment, catastrophe, and real life, viewing these phenomena through the prism of his experiences in Lunghua camp. In "The Enormous Space," a story first published in Interzone in 1989, a man decides not to drive to his office one morning, instead resolving never again to step outside his house in Croydon. He effectively transforms his home into a version of Lunghua Camp, there gradually to go mad, marooned in suburbia, while interpreting the whole experience as a grand experiment with time and space. The story can be read as a metaphorical account of Ballard's entire writing career.

Ballard once compared his role as a writer to that of a scout, sent ahead to determine if the water is drinkable. How you interpret the scout's answer may depend on your taste in water. Contemplating Ballard's achievement, I am struck by how adept we writers are at developing our early traumas into accounts of how the world really is - not because we are helpless to do otherwise, but because this is often the most productive way for a writer to proceed. Which reminds me incongruously of a line from a Joe Lieberman speech-"The future is not just ahead of us, it's inside us."

 

More information about Ballard is available at Ballardian and the Modern Word.

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