J. G. Ballard, The Crystal World
Crystallising the world, the body, or the mind?
At last, Ballard in full flow. The Crystal World (TCW) is definitely the most enjoyable of the early trio of apocalyptic novels. It takes the successful elements of the first two and embellishes them with new details and ideas. At time of writing, TCW is definitely the best Ballard novel that I have read in its entirety.
The book begins with a steamer travelling up a river in Cameroon carrying the novel’s main protagonist Edward Sanders, a doctor at a hospital for lepers. He is hoping to meet some friends, Max and Suzanne Clair, who are also doctors and run another leprosy hospital in a town named Mount Royal (also the name of the main city in “The Drought”). His motives are not entirely clear and we are given introspection into his doubts about the reasons he is making the journey. The inference is that he had an affair with Suzanne Clair and may well still be in love with her.
However, in the wider world outside of all this brooding something is definitely up. Attention is drawn to the unnatural darkness of the forest. There is discussion of an eclipse (“Surely the duration would be a maximum of eight minutes”). Later it is also mentioned that the forest shines at night. The letter from Suzanne Clair inviting Sanders to Mount Royal states: “The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels… The light touches everything with diamonds and sapphires”. It appears to Sanders that her description of the forest is consistent with having contracted leprosy herself: “in maculoanaesthetic leprosy there was an involvement of nervous tissue”. The motive for Sanders going up the river may be sentimental as well as sexual.
Accompanying Sanders is a sinister man named Ventress who is described as having a “skull-like” face. He is the only passenger who will travel with the doctor as the remaining passengers believe that they may catch leprosy from him. This is a fear that Ventress dispels with a grim sense of humour in this bon mot: “What our timorous fellow passengers fail to realise is that outside of your colony there is merely a larger one.” These discussions are a clever device for framing Sanders within events and between communities. Whereas in the previous two books, the protagonist is
The other principal characters are a Jesuit priest, Father Balthaus, and a young journalist Louise Perec. Balthaus causes a commotion in the market place by shaking crystals from a bejewelled crucifix that has been offered to him for sale. He calls it obscene and whirls the crucifix around his head, thus establishing Balthaus as the de facto ‘crazy religious guy’. In this episode, Ballard takes the time to establish the rules for his crystals. They attach themselves to ordinary objects encasing them in crystals and jewels. However, when agitated the crystals can be shaken off the objects and they disappear in a flash of light. An overused word throughout the book is “deliquesce”, which means for a solid to disappear into the air. I can see the attraction of the word; before I looked it up I presumed that it meant to emit light – I think the sound of the word is suggestive of the emission of light.
Whilst temporarily prevented from going on to Mount Royal by the army, Sanders meets Louise Perec, a journalist who suspects that something odd is going on. He photographer has gone missing up river in Mount Royal. It doesn’t end well for the guy, his partially crystallised corpse floats down the river and catalyses the plot. The opening exchange between Louise and Sanders is quite funny and shows that despite the detached nature of Ballard’s characters he does often imbue them with a wry sense of humour:
‘Do you want to go to Mount Royal, Doctor?’
Sanders began to walk off, the young woman following him. ‘Are you a police spy?’ he asked. ‘Or running an underground bus service? Or both, perhaps?’
Needless to say, our heroes travel up the river where Sanders finds that his status as a doctor gains him access to events in the affected zone. In short, he ends up in the crystallised forest - the crystal world of the title. The language up to this point (almost the entirety of part one) is very restrained and clinical but with the introduction of the crystallised zone, the vocabulary changes dramatically to convey the majesty and terror of the crystal world. The language used to describe the forest is ecstatic, with a great emphasis on how the change of the natural world into a crystalline one impacts upon the senses.
I shall not provide (m)any more plot spoilers and will instead wrap up with how clever I thought this novel was in comparison with the previous two. In “The Drowned World” both the world and the protagonist are, to some extent, lost forever. In “The Drought” world and protagonist are saved from the brink of madness by the drops of rain that start to fall at the end. In TCW, we cannot be sure how the ending is to be interpreted. I think this ambiguity is intended to mirror the prismatic nature of the crystals, that the plot lends itself to the same mirroring and reflection as the jewels themselves.
In crystal, Ballard seems to have found the ideal apocalyptic substance, especially when he invents the rules for time and existence when people are crystallised. The central idea is that due to a leakage of time from the universe, all possible configurations of matter are being superimposed upon smaller and smaller amounts of physical space. (Let me have another hit on that bong now…) Ballard plays around with this superposition a lot, alongside the contrasts and comparisons that result as the refractions are observed. Relationships play out in love triangles (prisms, again!) and motives of individuals are replicated, mirrored and echoed throughout the plot.
As a reading experience, TCW is the best from my Ballard list that I have read so far. It is well paced and provided you can get through rather the clinical and mundane opening half, you’ll be rewarded with a whole pile of batshit craziness that gets rattled off in part two. Ballard takes us into the crystal world, where we can watch in wonder as with words he makes prisms of our skins, our forests and or minds.
NB: I think I am going to take a bit of a Ballard break now. Next up is “Crash”. I have read it before, back when I was seventeen. I remember that I loved it (for salacious teenage reasons and with little knowledge back then of what the world is really like) but I am still a bit apprehensive about it. I may skip on to “Concrete Island”, I just haven’t quite made up my mind.