The Sneaky Art of Storytelling

John Irving, J.G. Ballard and the Best of Genre Fiction

farenheit burn, by mrtwism, with Creative Commons licenceStories rarely do what we expect of them. Somewhere, in between the words, fiction becomes a little too much, detail doesn’t seem quite right. Few people ever read a story and think yes, that’s exactly how it should be, or was, or will be. And that’s surprising, because we search for structure, for shape and form, even as we lead unstructured lives.

Pity the poor storyteller. John Irving got in right in his autobiographical Trying to Save Piggy Sneed when he wrote that ‘real life’, or what we expect of it at least, is just not believable in fiction. “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car . . . uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it”. But it happened, and one of Irving’s students wrote it down.

There are, of course, ways of dealing with improbabilities on the page, or genre fiction would also be dead. Imagine that – no detective noir, no science fiction, no fantasy, no tragicomedy. The best case in point is Irving himself. It seems unlikely that someone’s mother would accidentally bite off her lover’s penis while giving him a blowjob in his car when her husband coasts down the driveway in the family station wagon with the headlights off to thrill the kids and – again accidentally – rams them. But I read that in Irving’s World According to Garp as a kid and I believed it.

two sides to every story, by Norma Desmond, with Creative Commons licenceWhy? Because it carried with it equal measures of fear and titillation for the boy that never fade in the man, because emotion dictates what I should believe, if only in one instance. That’s the first thing about this art called storytelling – we’re forever at the mercy of the scribe, always willing to shift perceptions just a little bit, to say yes, alright, just this once. But maybe not again.

Genre fiction is all about that sort of reversal, about pulling the rug out from underneath your imagination and seeing where it drops. J.G. Ballard makes the point in his recently published memoir that his sort of science fiction – the ‘inner space’ of The Drowned World and The Atrocity Exhibition that so shook up the genre’s American establishment in the 1960s and 1970s – is based in the humdrum of everyday life, the rise of consumerism, the reinvention of governments as populist public relations machines. It has nothing to do with outer space – it’s meant to defeat our expectations.

Shanghai to SheppertonBallard’s volume, entitled Miracles of Life in honour of his children, is measured and gracious, just the opposite of the tawdry literary porn he was accused of writing in harsh, super-realist novels like Crash, his take the sexual fetishism of technology in the violence of the automobile accident. It didn’t help that the narrator’s name was his own: James Ballard.

Forget Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, majestic realism though it is – this sort of upheaval is what counts. We can read his fictionalised account of internment in Shanghai during the Second World War and learn something about the human spirit, something about the rape of civilisation as well, but in Ballard’s science fiction we can feel the shock of the everyday, pushing relentlessly through where it shouldn’t be.

Somewhat ironically – because he’s less than enamoured with the English tradition of fantasy writing – Ballard’s prose comes close to what J.M. Barrie described of the child’s mind in Peter Pan:

The Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs . . . It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murder, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, threepence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

This, once removed, is Ballard telling a story. Just imagine the whole thing in your face, on speed.

lizzard, by jaako, with Creative Commons licenceOr maybe not – Ballard makes no secret of the fact that his boyhood in Shanghai is what he’s both writing about and escaping from, over and over again. But he gives that to us in the most sneaky manner, offering the fantastic and the horrible, yet delivering what we’ve already accepted and lived, now expressed in an unsettling way.

That’s the true art of storytelling, the ability to twist our lives back in on themselves, the drive to reveal that only death halts the macabre show.

Like all of us, but a lot more quickly, James Ballard is dying now. Prostate cancer; fittingly, its what he least expected. Genre fiction really does get it right – uncertainty is the hallmark of this deeply puzzling world.

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