Yet we often cut our teeth on book reviews. Younger writers get experience thinking more critically about books; they get their feet in the door at publications they want to be a part of. More seasoned writers can be choosier about reviewing, picking books that are of special interest and, in some rare instances, such writers can transform the mere book review—or its longer cousin, the essay-review—into something approaching art. They do so by thinking on the page, by being learned and by writing memorable sentences. At the least, such reviews are pleasures to read.
That’s pretty unusual. After all, there’s a reason we don’t have a Best American Book Reviews series, a reason why we don’t rush out to find The Greatest Hits from Kirkus. (And here I’m not considering avant-garde takes on the form as in Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, cool though that book is.)
Which brings me to the genius of J.G. Ballard, author of such novels as The Drowned World and Crash, of such short stories as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Terminal Beach,” a science-fictional postmodernist surrealist writer whose reputation among wider audiences was made with his book Empire of the Sun and the Spielberged hit movie of the same name. A few years ago I bought a used hardback of his volume A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. (It’s not all book reviews, as A User’s Guide collects brief essays on such things as his favorite science-fiction movies and his return home to Shanghai, as well as his famous 1962 manifesto “Which Way to Inner Space?” Happy 50th!) I look at the book not infrequently. Indeed, I love it.
Ballard is one of those writers who elevated reviews, even short ones, into art, into, well, essays. (And now I’ll switch to the present-tense because he’s alive in these reviews.) He lets you know just enough about the book or books under discussion and he conveys his evaluations, but primarily the reviews are thoughtful explorations of the issues and contexts the books raise. The reviews are his mind at work and play, running the rapids of literature, history, politics, science, art. Ballard knew a lot, so his reviews often teach. Reading the pieces in A User’s Guide is like reading a lively encyclopedia. Here’s a partial list of the subjects he writes about in his reviews: Nancy Reagan, Andy Warhol, futurism, William Burroughs, children in wartime, the history of psychiatry, the history of food, sex therapy manuals, Mein Kampf.
A User’s Guide to the Millennium takes its factual bones seriously; there is an index of several pages for a book whose title becomes more and more accurate the longer you spend with it. This is a history of the 20th century primarily via the book review.
Ballard sometimes uses episodes from a book he’s reviewing to form the architecture of a piece; that is, this often anti-narrative fiction writer will tell stories. He’s masterful at selecting and paraphrasing material from the books under discussion. In a review of a book about Walt Disney, we learn that Disney “exclaimed on first seeing the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Fantasia,” that “‘Gee, this will make Beethoven!’” Ballard’s review of Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country and Coca-Cola (“a hilarious account of the origins of the planet’s leading soft drink and its mythic place in consumer consciousness”) provides a six-paragraph distillation of this history that is so spritely (sorry, just had to) that one senses Ballard’s précis might be better than the book itself: “In the headquarters city of Atlanta, Georgia, there is a museum visited by 3000 tourists a day, where the creation of Coca-Cola in 1886, in a humble three-legged kettle, is presented as a miracle equivalent to the Virgin Birth. Its inventor was John Pemberton, a 54-year-old doctor of Scottish origins and a long-suffering morphine addict.” And so the story unfolds.
A review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song ends: “Soon after dawn the party ended. To the tune of ‘Una Paloma Blanca’, Gilmore was taken to the execution yard in the prison cannery. As a TV commentator bawled: ‘You’ll be able to hear the shots, I promise!’ Gilmore was tied to a chair in front of the concealed firing squad. After the shots, in the first silence since Gilmore’s arrest, the only sound was the blood dripping on to his tennis shoes below the seat. Perhaps not surprisingly, only one witness managed to be sick.”
Ballard weaves history, science and, sometimes, personal anecdotes. Contrasting how “Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon, a triumph of courage and technology...had virtually no influence on the world at large,” Ballard notes that “the great record-breaking attempts of the 1920s and 1930s generated an endless spin-off in architecture, fashion and design. I can remember my own childhood, when even static objects like teapots were streamlined and much of the furniture and kitchen equipment around me seemed to be forever moving past at 100 m.p.h.”
That eye for detail, here drawn inward to make a wider cultural point, not surprisingly shows up again and again in Ballard’s book reviews. He often writes crisp, dazzling sentences and passages—no surprise to anyone who knows his fiction. Listen to the opening of his review of Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan:
But why didn’t the astrologers see this coming? The sunsets above Mulholland Drive must be an even more electric pink these days as the whole of Bel Air blushes for Nancy. By now everyone knows about her White House affair with Frank Sinatra, her legendary meanness as she recycled unwanted Christmas presents, her reckless spending of the taxpayer’s money and Imelda Marcos-sized extravagance on designer clothes, her chilling relationships with her own children during the ruthless climb to success and, most damning of all, the astrologers who decided the dates of international conferences and determined those ‘bad’ days when Ronnie was not allowed to leave the White House at all.Another of Ballard’s strengths is his use of figurative language, which, in the compressed form of a review, becomes even more pronounced. In a piece on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Dystopias move past like sinister battleships in a menacing review.” In a review of a portrait of de Sade, Ballard asserts that “coping with his wayward genius is like digesting the news that a distant relative ran the torture chambers in a death camp.” Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is compared to “a gigantic glutinous pun.” Dali was like “a hallucinating speak-your-weight machine.” In one biography, Oscar Wilde “comes across as flawed but vaguely presidential, rather like Goering.” And this: “Henry Miller bursts into the twentieth-century novel like a reprobate uncle gate-crashing an over-sedate party, scandalizing the company with a string of off-colour stories before slipping away with the two prettiest wives, but leaving behind him the strong sense that for a few minutes everything has become a good deal more fun.”
Kitty Kelley is an exponent of the chain-saw school of biography, and through the blizzard of sawdust it is hard to make out the real woman within this devastating portrait. But the real was always a doubtful commodity in the case of the Reagans…it scarcely matters if the facts in this biography are true or not.
But it’s not only Ballard who is so quotable in his book. He notes that editor Roy Porter in The Faber Book of Madness quotes Susan Sontag: “Depression is melancholy without the charm.” The Emperor Hirohito on Halley’s Comet: “It’s nice to see it again.”
And no one uses the question as a lede or hook better than Ballard.
“Is Marlon Brando the Mae West of contemporary cinema?”Possibly not, but the future of the book review does if writers turn to J.G. Ballard for instruction. I suppose Gail Pool’s discussion of the distinctions among book reviewer, academic critic and book critic might be noted here. In her interesting study Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America she not only humorously catalogs the long history of dissatisfactions with this endeavor (at least on this side of the Atlantic), she notes that reviewers, critics and book critics are perhaps different animals. Ballard, by this template, seems closest to the latter. And while James Cox, the editor of the Midwest Book Review, has objected to reviewers who “egregiously impos[e] their own egos upon their assessments of what they are reviewing…” I don’t think Ballard did that (with the possible exception of a jousting, score-settling review of a book by Kingsley Amis, which, in fact, is a delicious read—the review, I mean).
“Einstein the philanderer?”
“Clasp your hands together—which thumb is on top?”
“In the long run, which casts the stronger spell, food or sex?”
“Are books becoming another form of television?”
“Does the future still have a future?”
Upon his reviews what Ballard imposes, if that’s the right word, is his considerable intellect. That and his sunset-on-chrome style. Ballard’s reviews—little essays about books and their worlds—are almost as memorable as his fictions and often just as satisfying.
(Correction: My friend and colleague Paul Hurh tells me that the lowest form of nonfiction is the video-game review.)
An Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona, Christopher Cokinos is the author of two books of literary nonfiction, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, both from Tarcher/Penguin. His lyric essay collection, Bodies, of the Holocene, is forthcoming from Truman, and a poetry chapbook, Held as Earth, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. His current projects include a history of our fascination with and scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence and a collection of poems inspired by the paintings of Rene Magritte. Work is recent and forthcoming in High Desert Journal, Pank, Hawk & Handsaw, The Volta, Sugar House Review, Shadowbox, Science, and Fourth River.