Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard | Book review
The author’s autobiography is published stateside.
The standard formula for memoir is to foreground the childhood trauma: Plumb the abuse or horrors of youth to trace its manifestations later in life. And yet, in author J.G. Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, he does just the opposite. The son of a wealthy British businessman, he was raised on an estate in Shanghai. During WWII he and his family were placed by Japanese forces in the Lunghua internment camp for two years. Though his family had to eat maggots for protein, Ballard writes, “I thrived in Lunghua, and made the most of my years there.” These experiences informed his 1984 novel, Empire of the Sun.
Anyone who has read Ballard’s fiction would not be surprised to find his autobiography countermanding expectations. Best known for his car-crash-as-sexual-fetish novel, Crash, he was one of the finest writers of dystopian fiction—an author who made science fiction feel not at all fictional, and who challenged convention throughout his career. Written while Ballard knew he was dying of prostate cancer, the memoir possesses little of the bleakness that came to characterize his work (See: warmly remembering his time spent in a prison camp), though he does reserve some bite for the classism and provincialism of 20th-century Britain.
Ballard’s later life was no easier: His wife died and he was left to raise his three young children on his own (the title is also how he refers to his kids). Though the book has all the discursiveness one might expect from a memoir written by a man facing down death, there’s still a sharpness to Ballard’s sense of humor, particularly when it comes to his interactions with Hollywood (he calls Holly Hunter’s press conference defense of the movie Crash the best performance at Cannes). He remained, to the end, a gimlet-eyed bard.