J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)

As has been noted elsewhere, James Graham Ballard died on Sunday.  This was not an unexpected event.  Ballard had publically announced his terminal prostate cancer and had even written an autobiography Miracles of Life (2008) which served to tidy up some of the biographical facts that might have been glossed over in Ballard’s fictionalised memoirs Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991).

I first experienced Ballard’s writing at school.  I remember an English Lit timed assignment in which we had to read and write an essay about his short story “The Drowned Giant”.  As a teenaged atheist and a cynic I immediately latched onto the story’s imagery of a wonderous and sacred thing appearing as a bloated decaying corpse.  A corpse which is defaced and brutalised and mis-used by humanity until all that is left of it is skeletal ignorance and self-serving mystery and evasion. Not being the most voracious of teenaged readers, my love of Ballard would lie mostly dormant until rediscovering his work via David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1973)  However,  I think that Ballard only really clicked for me when I read Cocaine Nights (1996)

Book Cover

Book Cover

Given how many great works Ballard produced during his life, it is perhaps strange that Cocaine Nights should be the book to draw me into Ballard’s creative orbit but despite reading many of Ballard’s earlier works, I still find that my reading of Ballard is tinted by the impression left on me by that one book.

For me, Cocaine Nights perfectly captures the final stages of capitalistic individualism.  It depicts humanity as lazy, hedonistic and passive.  Content to put up with anything as long as its basic needs are met.  However, slumbering within these suppine creatures lay the seeds of great popular movements.  Movements that can re-shape the world and change the planet for good.  However, while these grand social powers can be used to remake humanity in a different way, Ballard raises the question of what kind of people would want to engage in such large-scale moral re-engineering and what kind of methods such people might require.

Cocaine Nights presents us with the most profound political stumbling block of our age;  Which is preferable, the existential despair and alienation of individualism, or the dehumanisation and moral compromise of the collective?  either way, humanity seems both doomed and damned.

I’ve written about  Ballard elsewhere :

Other tributes I have enjoyed :



  1. Very intrigued to read Cociane Nights was the novel that hooked you. I haven’t read it but your considered enthusiasm has made me re-evaluate. I love Ballard’s ideas, but some of the novels (especially the later ones) have stung me re their actual readability. ‘Millenium People’ for example I foudn to be a great vision with rather clunky execution. Does n’t his wonderful image of modern humanity come from Cocaine Nights, “a Billion Balconies Facing the Sun”? As Ballard admitted in an interview with BBC Radio 3;

    “A billion balconies facing the sun; still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies. But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? A world lying on it’s back is vulnerable to any cunning predator.”

    Few writer’s seem so aware of this dilemma as Ballard. He will be sadly missed.


  2. Cocaine Night’s problem is that it does most of what Super-Cannes did and so it was classed as a minor work from Ballard’s “but he keeps re-writing the same book over and over” phase.

    Balconies Facing the Sun is almost certainly from Cocaine Nights. I seem to remember it comes from a fantastic section in which the architecture of the costas is examined and a character points out that all of the ex-pats have balconies facing inwards into their own world rather than outwards to the rest of Spain and the World.

    It’s a book I keep returning to every couple of years and every time I do it is a pleasant surprise. The southern ex-pat lifestyle, the perfectly kept grounds, the tennis courts, the architecture and underneath the sinister forces and sleazy sex. It is almost distilled Ballard.


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