Monday, September 02, 2013

J. G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere

I always find reading great writers' juvenilia instructive. I revisited Eliot's Poems Written in Early Youth the other week, and found them remarkably unremarkable. I read straight thru Yeats's early books a while back, & found them strangely comforting – some lovely lyrics, but an awful lot of flatness and decorative imagery – the engine running, but the gears disengaged. It's good to know even the greats started out not so great.

I'd read a fair amount of '70s Ballard lately, so was pleased to come upon a copy (in a book club edition) of his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (bound with The Drowned World, his second and "breakthrough" book). Ballard later pretty much disavowed Wind, calling it a piece of "hack-work" done simply to break into the paperback market (previously he'd only published short stories). Apparently he had just turned 30, had a family to support, and felt that he'd never get out of his desk job unless he produced something novel-length. With a fortnight's holiday on his hands, he determined to crank out a 60,000-word novel in ten days of writing.

And he did – and boy does it show: paper-thin characters, reams and reams of far-fetched action sequences, and a basic plot mover (that the entire earth has been gripped by a high-speed wind that just keeps getting more & more devastating) that never even begins to get explained. It's a decent two hours' read, but one can't say anything more.

But then maybe I'm dismissing it too quickly, and out of hindsight: after all, it reads like a movie – like 2012, or The Towering Inferno, or The Day After Tomorrow, or any number of big-time disaster movies. And when it's compared to one of them – a team of scriptwriters, a zillion-dollar budget, etc. – it actually seems like a more than decent ten days' work.

Of course it's merely a dry run for Ballard's far more sociologically and psychologically interesting "disaster" novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World, etc.). In those books he realized what he knows only in flashes in The Wind from Nowhere: that the big explosions and topographical changes of the disaster aren't nearly as interesting as the ways that characters react to them.