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An immodest proposal

Stephen Barber

A War of Fragments: World Versus America
J.G. Ballards last-planned novel

Published: 11.12.2017


J.G. Ballard’s self-declared ‘Immodest Proposal’ for a global war-­alliance to exact the destruction of America demonstrates the provocatory zeal of his last fiction plans, as well as their enduring prescience. As Ballard emphasises several times in the World Versus America notebooks, he is utterly serious in his concerns and visions.
Although the Ballard ­estate declined permission for any images of pages from the World Versus America archival notebooks to accompany this essay, any member of the general public interested to do so can readily visit the British Library and view the notebooks in their entirety in the freely-­accessible manuscripts collection there.

At the very end of J.G. Ballard’s work, his preoccupations intensified and sharpened, rather than diminished. Those preoccupations possess an invaluable archival residue in the form of several notebooks (located in time by Ballard’s archivist, Chris Beckett, as dating from around 2005-06) outlining a potential new novel, World Versus America. The notebooks provide unique insights into the processes by which Ballard, towards the end of his life, instigated and developed his work, evidently unconcerned by any furore which it could unleash, if taken to publication form. The notebooks also constitute distinctive visual artefacts which resonate with Ballard’s visual collages and experimental art-works of the late 1950s to the early 1970s (notably those created for Ambit magazine).

The World Versus America notebooks are, in many ways, mysterious documents; it cannot be ascertained exactly when Ballard worked on them, nor whether he intended or not to take the meticulously outlined project to the form of completion and to publish it (however, the notebooks make explicit that he envisaged that a feature film could potentially be developed from the project). Similarly, it is unknown whether Ballard worked in the period following Kingdom Come on other final fiction projects (one such project or initial idea is mentioned in the World Versus America notebooks), but what is certain is that the notebooks of World Versus America contain the sole project from that era which has survived in archival form. Within that array of unknowns, any attempt to position Ballard’s World Versus America as his ‘last’ work in fiction, or as one definitely intended for eventual publication, is presumptuous, interpretative speculation. The reasons why any project becomes ‘abandoned’ are often multiple and contradictory, and there is no evidence either that Ballard intentionally abandoned World Versus America, either for personal or work-related reasons, nor that the project, for example through its prolific imaginative expansion and potential resultant unrealizability, abandoned him; abandonment as an entity has a life of its own. But while many of Ballard’s projects appear to have been destroyed in their manuscript form, he preserved (or did not discard) the World Versus America notebooks, and this may indicate that a special reason existed for that endurance of the project and its miraculous openness for researchers of his vital late work to engage with it.

World Versus America — among Ballard’s final fiction projects (if not the final project), and apparently conceived and outlined shortly after his last-published novel, Kingdom Come (2006) — intensifies the coruscating obsession in that previous work with neo-colonial conflagrations and the lethal transmutations of consumerism, while also evoking, in its fragmentary form, the shattered experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition. While Kingdom Come moves spatially inwards, World Versus America is envisioned as an expansive, multiply-voiced work. Kingdom Come wields its fury against the imploding miniaturised city of the shopping-centre, using as its model the multi-levelled atrium complex of the Bentall Centre in Kingston-on-Thames, in the far-western peripheries of London and close to Ballard’s base in Shepperton. Six years before the publication of Kingdom Come, Ballard was already vocally fulminating in interviews against the Bentall Centre as embodying the ‘dangers’ of corporeal and sensory negation which he perceived: ‘‘There are dangers,’ he continues. ‘There is this deadening of the human sensibility. You go to somewhere like Kingston-on-Thames... that is very close to a modern hell. Go to the Bentall Centre’ — he pronounces the name as someone might say Auschwitz-Birkenau — ‘and you see these huge galleries with people wandering around...’’.1 In other interviews, around the publication of Kingdom Come, Ballard’s focus for his enmity narrows down from the wider denunciatory context of Kingston-on-Thames — ‘a town I hate’2, as Ballard took pains to emphasise — to the Bentall Centre’s rows of consumerist gallery-cells, between whose confines the novel’s characters make their abbreviated journeys.

Ballard’s plans for World Versus America, by contrast, expand globally, and with maximal provocation, towards another enemy: the USA, in the first years of the twenty-first century, during which the USA’s military forces invaded Iraq in ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, following innumerable other worldwide interventions. World Versus America also followed the aerial attacks on American targets of 11 September 2001 and the instigation of new definitions of ‘terrorism’. But the preoccupations with apocalyptic consumerism that drove Kingdom Come also remain strong in World Versus America; Ballard seems to have conceived of consumerism as a distinctly American phenomenon, from his Shanghai childhood of lavish American cars and refrigerators.

World Versus America exists archivally solely in the form of five notebooks from which the project was taken no further (Ballard completed and published only one further book after Kingdom Come, the autobiographical Miracles of Life, 2008). The concentrated formulation of World Versus America resonates with the condensed fictions with which Ballard had experimented in the second half of the 1960s. With their fragmented structure, the World Versus America notebooks also appear to extend back to The Atrocity Exhibition, in reactivating imagery of the assassination of a US president, and in the immersal of the envisaged reader in sequences of last-ditch, last-breath narrative cuts. From the outlining of the project in his notebooks, it is clear that Ballard intended to incorporate into World Versus America elements drawn from television news, propaganda films, internet clips and magazine articles, in a way that recalls the collaging techniques of The Atrocity Exhibition and its accompanying art-works. One of his formulations of the novel’s narrative was that it would comprise ‘a series of testimonies’. Following on from the feature-films made of his novels Empire of the Sun and Crash (both films that are mentioned in the project’s notebooks), he was already envisaging World Versus America as a filmic project, that could even transmutate from the potential form of a novel into that of a film-script (or some other moving-image manifestation or media form), and so it resonates too, in its process of origination, with the filmic conception of The Atrocity Exhibition.

The weapons at Ballard’s disposal for his assault on America’s immense neo-colonial and media-instilled corporate power formed slight ones: five mass-produced, spiral-bound notebooks (many pages from which have evidently been torn-out for other purposes), still adhered with stickers from the local shop where he bought them (‘The Card Centre, Shepperton’); four of the notebook were priced at 80p each, alongside a more luxurious, gold-coloured one, the focus of Ballard’s principal work on the project, that cost 99p. Ballard’s densely notational and fragmentary elements occupy only part of the notebooks’ available space (in one notebook, only two pages are used, leaving the remainder of the surfaces blank). The back cover of one notebook is signed, ‘JGB’. All work on World Versus America was done by hand, mostly in blue biro with some black-biro and red-biro passages, apart from one typewritten sheet of paper which concisely summarises the project (apparently for the attention of a publisher or literary agent, in the context of its potential eventual publication, though this interpretation of the one-page document is by no means certain) and which, in its condensed and film-inflected form, constitutes a succinct treatment or synopsis of the project. In his essay on the British Library’s Ballard papers, their curator Chris Beckett describes what is known as fact about these materials: ‘The archive includes a set of five undated notepads containing outline ideas for a novel that was not to be written, about a world war referred to as WVA, or World Versus America.’3

In its formulation within Ballard’s five notebooks, World Versus America presents figures, rather than characters; he indicates his intention in the future to develop a range of characters with direct involvements and commitments, to propel the novel’s expansive and intricate narrative, but in the project’s notebook formulation (from which it appears not to have progressed, or if it did, then Ballard preferred not to preserve traces of that later work on the project), his figures comprise enigmatic ciphers. They remain unable to enter a narrative of prefigured erasure (in which America ‘effectively destroys itself — a chain reaction begins’), thereby evoking the figures of Xero, Kline and Coma, poised at the peripheries of half-built or derelict motorways in The Atrocity Exhibition. The figure who assassinates the American President, in the envisaged final part of the project, constitutes the ‘central character’, but remains hidden and disguised (for the act of assassination, he may dress as a Disneyland attendant in a Mickey Mouse costume). By contrast, the targets and means for European terrorist attacks on America form far more closely delineated presences; Ballard creates intricate lists of those targets, sub-dividing them into primary and ‘miscellaneous’ categories and using a complex, visually-striking system of red-ink ticks and triple asterisks, cross-referenced across the notebooks, for such destructive means as ‘suicide attacks’ and ‘suicide plane attacks’, and to separate ‘iconic’ targets such as ‘Hollywood Signs and Studios’ from such lesser targets as ‘Big Macs, Holiday Inns, etc’.

Ballard positions his project’s evocation of a terrorist war against America’s maleficent neo-colonial and consumerist dangers as a deadly serious one, with satirical elements, but with no element of irony; the project’s temporal focus is on the contemporary moment, but its timeframe also extends backwards across seven decades, to historical exemplars such as the Vietnam War and the Second World War. In his plan for the project’s development and its ending, America will be approached ‘as if the country was as dangerous as Nazi Germany or the Stalinist S.U. [Soviet Union]. Not an ironic and ambiguous ending. Given that most people’s feelings are broadly admiring of the US, taking it as the enemy (like a book written by a Viet Cong) would be all the more startling. An ironic ending would weaken it... Sept 11 suggests a psychological approach striking at the US’s main weaknesses — its sentimentality, religiosity, adolescence...’. The planned end-phase of the conflict, and America’s elimination, will form an all-consuming cataclysm with a ‘frenzied and brutal’ form.

Ballard’s engagement with the development of the World Versus America project extends to numerous instances in the notebooks at which he anticipates his potential readers’ responses. This does not necessarily mean that the project was intended definitely to be taken forward for publication, but Ballard appears to have been reflecting upon or experimentally testing his potential readers’ reactions to his ideas. He envisages his potential readers’ experience of World Versus America in a way that evokes (backwards and forwards across time) the emotionless but profound transits, disorders and revelations that a reading of The Atrocity Exhibition generates. He envisages that the project could take the form of ‘short chapters, almost diary-like, each seeing events from point of view of one of say 6-10 characters (it’s probably not so vital here to involve reader emotionally, since the story is so strong and strange)’. America’s destruction is projected as a gradual accumulation of fragmentary voices, all incanting catastrophe, but drained of emotion.

The archival notebooks transmit, to the researcher holding them at the British Library, Ballard’s intensive involvements with the preoccupations of World Versus America: as an ambitious and far-reaching project, requiring immense imaginative work on his part as the preparatory, outlining impetus of the project that, if taken forward, could outrage audiences both on its publication and into the future. The notebooks reveal Ballard’s meticulous approach to his writing process, with a careful breakdown in Notebook B of the anticipated number of words for the first part of the book, together with his plan next to prepare ‘a complete synopsis, scene by scene’. Within their existence at the archive collections of the British Library, the World Versus America notebooks may appear suspended and frozen in their abandonment (not necessarily an intentional abandonment), as though impeded from progression by some engulfing violent calamity of the kind which they themselves evoke, or marooned in time, or stilled by the enduring force of the anti-narrational curtailments of Ballard’s earlier work, such as The Atrocity Exhibition. Even so, they emanate a ‘strong and strange’ presence that is perhaps accentuated by the fact that the project only subsists in fragments, as an instigating outline and as a residue of Ballard’s envisaged future work on it.

Abandonment as an entity invariably possesses its own strange qualities in all of its variants, from architectural abandonments to the enthralling aura of discarded film celluloid and cinema auditoria to the textures of human skin or organs that have been consigned to neglect, by accident or intention. Abandonment is always a zone of oscillations and transits, like those of peripheral West London’s highways traversed by the characters of Ballard’s Crash, whose insurgent acts emphasise that the charged word ‘abandon’ also encompasses uncontrolled sensory excesses, in which all parameters have been overturned or voided, inciting exposures of violence and sex.

In the World Versus America project’s Notebook C, Ballard reflects freely on his own future work; he conjures the prospect of yet another novel, allowing him to veer ‘out of character’ and thereby annul expectations, as a further alternative to the taking-forward either of World Versus America or Miracles of Life: ‘Difficult to decide what to do next. The autobiog is almost a last word. Something out of character, like The Old Man and the Sea, would be ok.’4

Ballard’s self-declared ‘Immodest Proposal’ for a global war-alliance to exact the destruction of America, and erase its neo-colonial ambitions and maleficent consumerism, demonstrates the provocatory zeal of his last fiction plans, as well as their enduring prescience. As Ballard emphasises several times in the World Versus America notebooks, he is utterly serious in his concerns and visions. In 1968, Jean Genet — whose fiction Ballard admired and viewed as an inspiration particularly for the opening pages of Crash — wrote in an article for Esquire magazine (which declined to publish it) about his own proposals for the destruction of America: ‘America is a weighty island: too weighty. It would be a good thing, for America and for the whole world, for it to be destroyed — for it to be reduced down to a fine powder.’5 Genet’s proposed destruction of America could conceivably be allied to Ballard’s in their sense of a simultaneously political and apocalyptic vision, propelled by the unique power of abandonment, and bursting out in fragments. Although Ballard declared in 1990 that he wanted retrospectively to dedicate his work ‘To the Insane’ (‘I owe them everything’)6, his warnings and provocations embodied in the World Versus America notebooks also project his perceived ‘dangers’ with a raw sanity, into the future. Those archival notebooks of World Versus America provide fiercely illuminating, essential documents for researchers of Ballard’s extraordinary last phase of work and of that work’s tenacious survival into the future.

Notes1 ‘The Shopping Mall Psychopath’, interview with Ballard by Thomas Sutcliffe, The Independent, London, 14 September 2000, p. 7. | 2 ‘From Here to Dystopia’, interview with Ballard by Mick Brown, The Telegraph (magazine), London, 2 September 2006, pp. 16-22. | 3 Chris Beckett, ‘The Progress of the Text: The Papers of J.G. Ballard at the British Library’, British Library Journal (online), 2011, p. 15. | 4 All quotations from the World Versus America project are from the manuscript notebooks in the J.G. Ballard Papers, British Library, London. I’m very grateful to Chris Beckett at the British Library for his support and guidance. | 5  Text collected in L’Ennemi Déclaré, Gallimard, Paris, 1991, pp. 312-3. | 6 Annotations [to a new edition], The Atrocity Exhibition, RE/Search, San Francisco, 1990, p. 9

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Stephen Barber

is the author of twenty-five books, including seven novels, most recently White Noise Ballrooms and The Projectionists. Eadweard Muybridge and the Future Projections of the Moving Image. He has received several awards for his books, which have been translated into many languages, such as Japanese and Chinese. The Independent newspaper (London) once called him “the most dangerous man in Europe.” He is a professor at the Kingston School of Art, Kingston University, London, and a visiting research fellow at the Free University Berlin and Keio University Tokyo.