This is a dramatic collection, the weight of the book alone makes you feel like you’re holding something substantial.  I’ve never been a huge SF fan, I love Alien, and Blade Runner, anything about the end of the world, that stuff gets my attention.  Jonathan Lethem wrote a really great essay on J.G Ballard recently (here), and it reminded me of Lethem’s roots in the genre, and he made a point that the stories aren’t all flying saucers and alien’s eating human flesh.

My own mother loved the story in The New Yorker that came out the week J.G. Ballard died,  “The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B.” and after reading it I was convinced that this guy might have more in store for me than what I knew, or should I say hardly knew.  Crash, and Empire of the Sun are both great movies, at least until Spielberg puts his soft sticky stamp on one, and the sickness known as David Cronenberg who with his adaptation unsheathes a thirteen karat zirconium train wreck on movie goers.  It’s interesting to see how filmmakers take to Ballard’s harder stories, and I could see many modern cinesates frothing over this collection, casting the rolls as they read the book. “The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B.” convinced me that the world had ended, and this was the only place “to be”.  If that makes any sense.  There was a something very attractive about the desolation, it’s the adhesive quality of that story, for sure. How life can start again after everyone is gone, as long as everyone doesn’t include you.

“End-Game” is nothing more than a man doing the same thing over and over and expecting something to change. Which is the long way of saying Constantin, the jailed hero of this story, is insane. Malek, his personal executioner is there for the long haul.  They are both confined to a villa without any furnishings, it’s just them and a chess board. Over time, and many games of chess, you get an ear full from Constantin as he discusses his circumstances, at least how they relate to his imprisonment and his death, soon to be, at the hands of Malek.  This is like watching a drowning man reach for anything that will save him, or a crook say anything to get out from under the point of a knife. Ballard sets his men apart by good and evil, looming death plays a part too.  I’d like to think that the theme here is that life is short, and none of us know when it will end or how, and Malek, or a man like him, will come to our homes like an unwanted visitor.  Constantin almost succeeds in convincing the reader that he should get another trial, but Malek proves otherwise, not with a death blow, but with the words of a wise old man.

“Minus One”, is the next story in the collection and falls suspiciously into your lap, it’s not there for long, but it’s an effective example of what Rod Serling was trying to do with The Twilight Zone.  To be honest I don’t know who influenced who, I can’t see how it matters, but there is a connection, especially with this story.

Ballard takes us into the throat of a sanitarium, asylum, dry out ranch, whatever you want to call it.  Immediatley there is something wrong, a patient is missing. Mr. Hinton has gone away, disappeared like car exhaust.  He was there and then he wasn’t. People are blamed, the people in charge, and suddenly common sense prevails. Watch as Ballard proves the impossible, if Mr. Hinton can’t be found, did he ever really exist? Could it have been a typo on the registration of another patients intake forms? Was he imagined? Of course, that’s the answer. I wouldn’t be doing you any favors if I told you what really happened.

Christmas is coming, you can make someone happy here.


JC: I met Eric Rickstad a few weeks back, when he started following me on Twitter, believe it or not. I read his fantastically brutal book Reap something like a decade ago and, if you are into stories in the Tom Franklin – Poachers – Donald Pollack – Knockemstiff – Russell Banks – Affliction mode you ought to go ought and find a copy. When you read the County Fair scene you’ll be happy you did.

Here’s what Eric had to say about what turned him into a reader and writer.

When We Fell In Love – Eric Rickstad

I could make a good long list of crushes that come close to the real thing, but in the end rise only to the equivalent of steamy backseat makeout sessions. Writers who moved me in one way or another, that made me want to do what they did: stir readers with images conjured with words. It was magic. Mystery. The writers who strike me most don’t make me want to just keep reading them, they make me want to put their book down and write.

I could go back to Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World or Stephen King’s Night Shift, Poe or O’Connor’s collections. If you’d asked me in third grade, I suppose I would have said I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. The Great Brain. There were the serious affairs with Hemingway and Faulkner and Welty and the experimentations with Kesey and Vonneguet and Philip Dick, JG Ballard… the list is long. I’ve since fallen for Proulx and McCarthy and Deb Eisenberg. But, as Robert Hayden wrote in his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?

When I truly fell in love with a writer I was in a beat up convertible 1970 VW Bug, primer gray, my sister’s boyfriend’s prize possession. It was the summer of 1978 and the writer was not a novelist, or a short story writer, or a poet. Not technically. Though his words resonated with more life and romance and tragedy and pain and moodiness than anything I’d ever read. His stories were the best I’d found, told with a conviction that reached me even at the age of 12. I fell in love with storytelling, and the urge to tell my own stories the second my sister’s boyfriend popped in the 8 track of Born to Run and I heard the first few notes of “Thunder Road” and then the lyrics

The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

I saw Mary. I saw her dress. I felt her aloneness. The narrator’s aloneness and desperation and sincerity. As the album continued, I felt the earnestness and vulnerability and fleetingness of youth and love and promises. I felt the hot sun and the dark nights. The complete freedom simply of driving with no place to go. The windows rolled down. I’d never yet even lived any of this myself. But the words, more than the music, reached me. The pain in them. The lust and sadness. The struggle. The triumph. The loss. I did not know then but I see now that album connected with me because of a sense of loss in myself, but also the need to search. My father had left my mom and three sisters and me when I was eight and that void was filled by Springsteen’s words somehow. I bought the album and I played it over and over and over again. And I’d crack it open, the jacket was one that opened, with the lyrics on the inside of the cover, and I’d read as I listened. Each song was a short story unto itself. They conjured vividly and concretely images that haunted me. I did not know who Springsteen was. I was too young to know about his stint on TIME and Newsweek  in the same week or of his carrying the mantle of Dylan. Hell I didn’t even know who Dylan was. But imagery like

Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain


The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be

Or from the song “Backstreets”:

Remember all the movies, Terry we’d go see / Trying in vain to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be / When after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest…

they cut to the quick with the spare beauty and lyricism and simple truths.

For my money, no short story, not Joyce’s “Araby” or Updike’s “A&P” or Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”, or Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish“, sums up the moment of lost youth as succinctly, poignantly, or heartbreakingly.

No matter what other words a writer may use, how he or she may put it, the loss of youth comes at the moment of realizing we’re just like all the rest. It’s crushing. Staggeringly so. It makes one feel weak and small and disillusioned. To look around and recognize that all the ways you’ve tried to walk or talk or dress differently are in part what make you the same. You’re the same in the ways you try so hard to be someone you are not. And it is in vain.

I went on to get every album up till then. And I found in them all gems. In the following years, I’d go to sleep listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Nebraska” and “The River”.

Songs such as “Stolen Car”, “Atlantic City” and “Meeting Across the River” had all the economy of Hemingway, the American Gothicism of Flannery O’Connor, and the poignancy of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Much later, I learned in an interview Springsteen did with Walker Percy’s nephew in the magazine DoubleTake, that Springsteen was more influenced by novels and books than by other music. “Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then.” He’d steeped himself in the work of Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Steinbeck. These were all writers I’ve come to love. I guess I am predisposed to a certain kind of storyteller who is able to tell stories of violent and desperate and lonely people with a certain quiet lyricism. I try to do that in my own writing, my novels and short stories. When I am writing at my best, I don’t have to try. Springsteen’s stories were the first that made me want to do it, to write. To reach out that way. I’m sure there are many others who can say the same thing. The lyrics hold up today for me as much if not more than they did then.

Eric Rickstad Springsteen said in that DoubleTake interview, “Songwriting allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, ‘And then years went by. . . .’ Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes.”

And that’s what he does best, as well as any novelist. He presents entire lives in a few minutes.

I think he has it wrong though. He never cheated anyone with his storytelling.

Bio: Eric Rickstad is the author of the novel Reap, a New York Times Notable Book first published by Viking/Penguin. His short stories and articles appear in many magazines. His latest novel Found is forthcoming in 2011.

“Visiting London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where everyone knows his place.

-J.G. Ballard, Airports: Cities of the Future for Blueprint magazine, September 1997

As in every big city, perhaps in every large concentration of human beings, London regards itself as quite considerably more important than everywhere else. Areas within London even posture themselves as somehow superior to their closest bordering neighbours. The same ‘narcissism of minor difference’ is expressed clearly by the amplified hatred of one obscure group of sports fans for their closest neighbouring rivals eg. Liverpool vs. Manchester, New York vs. Boston etc. etc. It’s just another reminder of what a bunch of witless, retrograde animals we actually are, despite all the protestations of highly-evolved, right-brain thinking.

People talk about tiny areas of London as if they’ve magically earned as much a right to a place in the collective consciousness as Sparta or Crete simply by being within the boundaries of the North Circular road. Londoners tend to assume in the listener a detailed geographical grasp of the city, regardless of where they might be from, just as New Yorkers refer to esoteric distinctions in ‘uptown’, ‘midtown’, and ‘downtown’ culture as if they are as intrinsic to human development as the Out of Africa migration patterns of Pleistocene man.

How have the supercilious people of a cold, rainy conurbation in an isolated corner of Northern Europe come to such licence to lord the relative merits of either side of a grey, begrimed river over the rest of the world.

Especially now, it seems that London didn’t get the memo that the system it developed and propagated across the globe has almost no ethical, spiritual or economic currency anymore, anywhere. It’s a situation that makes the half-mast-drainpipe-red-jean brigades look extra-specially ridiculous

Like the revival of the cravat in the early nineteenth century, in the 1980s, and then again in the early 2000s, the choice of that hat looks very much like a ‘top of the economic bell curve’ decision.

It’s very hard to avoid making them. It’s a rare individual that manages to transcend economic determinism, and avoids falling into the trap of thinking that things might be even remotely similar to how they were five, or even three, years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with this guy, and therefore, with Nicholas Sarkozy:

“That a head of state should allow Eros to plot the trajectory of his life, rather than the travails of the global credit crunch, is so life-affirming it moves me to tears.

-Peter Aspden, Financial Times, August 2, 2008