Terminal Realism: Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Zadie Smith

‘The writer’s task is to invent reality.’ J.G. Ballard.

On a recent trip to Heathrow, I travelled along the Westway. It’s been a few years since I headed out on that road, not since a friend of mine passed his driving test and we made a specific trip out west with Low by David Bowie over the speakers of a Nissan Micra, and Chris Petit’s Radio On in our brains. It was a fun afternoon, if a little misconceived. Psycho-geographers don’t drive.

In Bodies of Work, Kathy Acker writes about the realism of William S. Burroughs, comparing an anecdote told to her by a friend with the style of The Soft Machine. ‘Coney Island in the dead season. Accumulation of buildings aged by time and neglect into some substance the colour of dog shit. Here old people lived on welfare.’ Literate mimics and failed actors abound, but we’ll give Acker the benefit of suspension of disbelief when she writes: ‘Burroughs saw the society around him so clearly, he announced the future… In other words: today in the United States we are living in the world of Burroughs’s novels.’

Drive the Westway and you think of J.G Ballard. It’s there in the sullen concrete barriers, the litter of broken hubcaps and exhausts, the shreds of police tape and shattered wing mirrors. It’s there in the scruffy tower blocks, marooned across an expanse that seems curiously open and exposed for such a closed-in city. Ballard is another writer of place, what Zadie Smith describes in her mea culpa of an essay about Crash as, ‘a denatured landscape in which people don’t so much communicate as exchange mass-produced gestures.’

An early anticipation of social media notwithstanding, the predictive element of Ballard’s writing is sometimes overplayed. His science fiction is not that of William Gibson, or HG Wells, or even Karel Capek. Myths of the Near Future—the title of a nineties story collection—is illuminating: we might even rename it Surrealisms Of The Almost Present. Ballard’s prescience seems, to me at least, to be more a talent for close reading than anticipation: a highly trained eye looking so critically at his present, that his relevance remains. Zadie Smith writes: ‘When Ballard called Crash the first “pornographic novel about technology”, he referred not only to a certain kind of content but to pornography as an organising principle, perhaps the purest example of humans “asking for the use”.’ The definition of technology might similarly be scrutinised. You need to be a fast prophet to keep pace with contemporary change, particularly technological change. The function of the machine is largely irrelevant in Crash, the car is emblematic of the blurring of the self and the object under capitalism, our creeping lust for things. Famously, Ballard compiled characters from psychological textbooks, although, that’s always struck me as one of those handy fictions that writers invoke about their background process. People, or rather the reality of observed people, don’t really matter to him. In the closed-off emotional landscapes of Ballard, no one believes in love.

A few years ago, I would meet up with an air stewardess around Heathrow. She tried to teach me to drive in one of the airport car parks, and entertained me with ghastly stories from her years in the job. Our relationship had to be conducted over technology: Skype, text messages, emails; I had only recently purchased a smart phone. One night, we were snowed into one of the hotels she would stay in before flights. She had gone out into the corridor to fetch ice from the machine. I looked out of the hotel window, at the limitless pens of cars, the incomprehensible road networks, where a lone figure in a high vis coat worked beyond a chain link fence in a lot filled with unidentifiable machine parts. The next morning, she drove me across to Terminal 3. The road unspooled around countless roundabouts, like a videotape being erased. Later, she would head back to the hotel, change and pack, and report for her plane to Dubai, New York, I couldn’t remember. She looked up at the sky and shook her head. The lazy motion of planes above us in the white sky, like lonely gametes drifting over West London.

‘Hideous, hideous, hideous place.’

Words © Daniel Bennett

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