THE MONKEY ISLAND Tom SYKES
DARK TOURIST OF THE MIND
TOM SYKES reflects on the late author J.G. Ballard’s legacy
J.G. BALLARD, who sadly died on April 19, 2009, will be remembered not only as a great writer of imaginative fiction but as a philosopher who made sense of the senseless times he lived through. By his own admission, his oeuvre was formed by his childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp in the 1940s, fictionalised in the famous Empire of the Sun and recounted more directly in Miracles of Life. Although the imagery of that traumatic period in Asian history—coffins floating down a river, casual executions on the streets—was to haunt the rest of his work, his real focus of interest was Western society and its numerous and complex pathologies. When talking about Crash, his 1973 novel about a cult that gets sexual kicks from road accidents, he stated that his aim was to “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.”
In the psychological landscape of Ballardworld, those apparently innocuous places of leisure and convenience, shopping malls and luxury hotels and industrial parks induce such ennui in people that they eventually flip out, revert to their basic bestial instincts and do terrible things to one another. The epitome of modern leisure is tourism, what the Situationist writer and Ballard’s contemporary Guy Debord, defines in Society of the Spectacle as “human circulation packaged for consumption ... the opportunity to go and see what has been banalised.” But for Ballard the banal is synonymous with the brutal—his late novels Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes depict seemingly polite resort communities which turn out to be hives of abuse, manipulation and murder.
In J.G. Ballard: Conversations, Ballard says, “Travel, in the old-fashioned sense, has more or less ceased to exist. What we have now is tourism.” What he means is that travel was once a corporeal activity, physically tiring and hazardous. The young European gentlemen who took ‘grand tours’ to the colonies in the 19th century endured months of uncomfortable sea passage at risk of disease, piracy and shipwreck before landing in wild places offering even more ways to get killed, from cannibalism and snake bites to dysentery and falling headlong off a mountain. There was no Lonely Planet travel insurance then and certainly no crying to the embassy because your passport got stolen.
Of course things are very different today as our world has come to mimic Ballardworld. Travel has been reduced to a postmodern caricature of its former self. Globalisation has largely robbed the world of its regional particularities. Tourist spots are depressingly similar wherever you go, catering to Western tastes and ideals. They are colonies of the familiar where you’ll find theme parks, bowling alleys, American-style fast-food outlets, Irish-style pubs, German-style sausage kiosks, mock-bohemian hostels and—above all—the beach.
While beaches can be trashy, corny and venal, they fascinated me during my travels in Asia. Suspended from the normal diktats of time, order and motion, they represent the zenith of the unreal tourist experience. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You feel like you must be in an imaginary place because it’s so sublime: isthmuses of blazing sand reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode 10 miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.
Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: an Austrian whose parents own a huge porn shop in Salzburg, a United Nations peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Kuala Lumpur police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur. As the sun sets, you sink happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards and TV holiday shows.
Your close proximity to weird animals can make you think you are roaming The Lost World or The Island of Dr. Moreau. You wait for a six-foot monitor lizard to cross the path to your hut inside which there is a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider—straight out of Poe—that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches—those evolutionary tough nuts, flying at your face like apocalyptic beasts, worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.
You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotise you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET smeared all over your body to prevent bites. Mosquito bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.
At around 4am, the locals burn great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream. What further adds to that fabulous feeling is that, on the beach, no one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travellers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local lingo. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, wears dreadlocks and carries a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it. He is holier than thou about the milieu—he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.
You’ll be pleased to know that I never ‘threw a Ballard’ and committed a random act of violence on the beach. Nonetheless I had still experienced a peculiar interzone fabricated according to people’s desires and imaginings. As the great man himself said, “external reality is a fiction.” He best developed that notion in The Atrocity Exhibition, which explored how media imagery had begun to saturate human consciousness in the heady days of the 1960s. The horror of the Vietnam War, in which over three million were to die, was being transformed by the conventions of television into a kind of entertainment beamed into every suburban lounge. Events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the moon-landing came to be elevated by the media into a mythology to rival that of the ancients. Along with James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, The Atrocity Exhibition is a classic experimental novel in both form and content, eschewing the normal temporal and spatial rules of narrative fiction and resisting traditional literary analysis. It caused controversy when it first came out, prompting one American publisher to write of Ballard, “This man is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”
Ballard understood better than any other writer how the human condition had been reshaped by the warp-speed changes our societies have undergone since World War II. He will be sorely missed.
TOM SYKES was born in 1979 and educated at the University of East Anglia. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing As A Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. A North American version of the book came out in June 2008 and an Australasian edition has been planned for 2009. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia, as well as in international anthologies such as Small Voices, Big Confessions. His novella, The Blank Space, will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009. His story, “Let There Be Something or Nothing,” was recently anthologised in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, February 2009). His new book, The Hitchers of Oz, which he co-wrote with Simon Sykes, is now out in Australia. It is a collection of hitchhiking stories featuring Carmel Bird, J.P. Donleavy, Chuck D. and others.
Reproduced from the July-September 2009 issue of Quill magazine