The Drowned World
by J.G. Ballard
Berkley Books, 1962
208 pages / $23.95 buy from Amazon
1. “All the way down the creek, perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly. They launched themselves in the wake of the cutter, snapping at the insects dislodged from the air-weed and rotting logs, then swam through the windows and clambered up the staircases to their former vantage-points, piled three deep across each other.”
2. Freak extreme sunspot activity melts the polar ice-caps and reshapes the geography of earth. Humanity has migrated to the far north, and the cities of Europe are transformed into lagoons festering with lizards, mould, and ancient plant life. It’s the Triassic, part two.
3. The action focuses on two male biologists cataloguing new species in the lagoon that was once London, and a marooned heiress living in a half-flooded luxury apartment building. The biologists arrive with a military expedition charting the tributaries of the lagoon and surrounding islands. Despite the setting, it’s a boring premise, and it’s a relief when the main body of the expedition returns north.
4. Before the expedition leaves nearly everyone in the lagoon has started to dream about
a pulsing drum beat and “prehistoric sun”, which the biologists determine is a part of
“repressed” primordial memory, dating back to humankind’s earliest verterbrate
ancestors. #is is the main idea of the book. When I %rst got to this part I rolled my
eyes because it’s exactly that idea of “repressed primal drives” that I would expect was
trendy in the 60s and 70s (!e Drowned World was released in 1962). It reminded me
of the movie Wake In Fright, released in 1971, in which a prissy Australian schoolteacher
loses all of his money and basically gets his ass kicked by the Outback.
5. More things the idea of “repressed primal drives” reminded me of: “bogus ‘tribal’ art,”
“shag carpet,” “puma musk,” “gold medallions,” “whiskey,” “leopard print,” “snake
leather,” “open button-up shirts,” “Don Johnson’s alligator in Miami Vice,” “doing a lot
of cocaine,” “desperate misogyny.”
6. In Wake in Fright, the protagonist survives solely on the hospitality of strangers who
get him shitfaced and expect him to fire rifles while shitfaced. The movie is about a lot
of things, and it would be reductive to say otherwise, but contained within its premise
is the idea that there is a monstrous primal animal heart beating in the centre of
everyone. Wake in Fright handles this idea much better than The Drowned World: it’s
far more subtle, for one thing, which I think is partly due to the fact that it’s not
science fiction, although aside from its setting The Drowned World is not particularly
wild or exaggerated. And the Outback in Wake in Fright could almost pass for the
setting of a science fiction movie.
7. Wake in Fright’s excess is the result of despair or boredom whereas in The Drowned
World it is seen as a release or panacea.
8. As a title, !e Drowned World is almost too accurate, ultra-descriptive and relatively
bland, and the text doesn’t really exceed or challenge or stretch its boundaries. I don’t
think a work of fiction has ever delivered as well as The Drowned World does on the
implicit promises its title makes, and yet I’ve never been quite so disappointed. For a
post-apocalyptic wasteland, this was fairly standard fare, except perhaps for sections
like the passage I quoted in the first point.
9. “Drowned world,” “subconscious memories,” I get it, still boring.
10.Science fiction is, of course, always a better indicator of the time in which it is written
than that time’s future, but this book was too often derailed by its insistence on
remaining inside 1960s moral and social codes, as well as that time’s prejudices. This is
the main problem with The Drowned World.
11.For instance: six weeks after the military leaves, the lagoon is invaded by an albino
pirate named Strangman with a steamship full of plunder, that ship’s machete-wielding
crew, and thousands of (tame-ish) alligators. The first instinct of the characters
marooned in the lagoon? Rush down the stairs to say hello. I know that when The
Drowned World was written Leave it to Beaver was still on the air, but jesus fuck, stay
away from the insane maniac with the alligator army.
12.For instance: Beatrice Dahl, the heiress, is basically window dressing, not good for
anything more than tanning in her bikini, painting her nails, and being captured/
rescued and festooned with jewels.
13.For instance: presumably Strangman and his crew came from the same place, but
whereas he’s an eloquent albino pilot, none of his black crew members can speak
coherent english, and neither do they seem capable in any other language. Here’s the
Admiral, Strangman’s right hand man: “Bones! Yes, man, dem’s all bones! Dem bones
dem bones dem… !” Here’s Strangman: “I can tell you, I sometimes feel like Phlebas the
Phoenecian.” This would maybe be fine if any of Strangman’s men were real characters,
but, like Beatrice, they’re set pieces, in this case meant to heighten or portray feelings of
“danger,” “savagery,” and “animal violence.” I’m not exaggerating. “Big Caeser,” third in
command, is some kind of giant, and, aside from having a name you’d give to a gorilla,
is at one point actually described as resembling an ape.
14.Considering Ballard’s reputation, I was expecting a lot more than this.
15.At first I thought the principal character in the story, a biologist named Kerans, was
black, but it turns out he’s just a tanned white person and Ballard just really likes to
play up the word “ebony”—I guess as a point of contrast with what Ballard imagines is
pre-sunspot Europe? Ugh.
16.Race is a huge issue for this book, even though I wouldn’t say it’s a major theme,
because Ballard seems to expect his racial stereotypes to add an inherent tension to the
situation. Instead, this “technique” falls deservedly flat.
17.Wake in Fright, which contains a long sequence in which kangaroos are actually
murdered, made me far less uncomfortable (and it at least acknowledges that the scene
could be disturbing with a note from the producer at the end of the movie). (It was a
“supervised hunt” and the kangaroos were killed “humanely,” by “professionals”—
whatever that means).
18. Should literature or art make you comfortable? No, not necessarily, of course not, but
Ballard isn’t pushing boundaries, he’s just writing from a position of laziness and
19.Ballard has a good ear for language, although !e Drowned World is nowhere near as
intricate or intense as the two chapters of Crash I read before my Kobo started acting
up. This is definitely apprentice work. Maybe he’s even a little bit afraid to get out of
control, unlike in Crash, the first paragraph of which contains this sentence: “The
crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the
vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later.”
20.I wanted this book to get really weird, with Kerans descending into a kind of
paleolithic consciousness and the Triassic jungle completely tearing apart the lagoon,
and more iguanas, everywhere, and descent of all kinds, but Ballard never really gets
that far, certainly not with Kerans, although a military officer deeply affected by the
dreams does become a bit of a spectacle (it’s great, though he’s an extremely minor
character, and mostly out-of-frame).
21.Margaret Atwood’s unamed narrator does a much better job of breaking down in
Surfacing, and all that person has to contend with are three assholes and a cottage on a
lake in Northern Ontario.
22.Speaking of Northern Ontario, when J.G. Ballard died, I remember the CBC news
making a big deal of Ballard’s connection to Canada, but he just spent thirteen months
training in the RCAF in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Kind of sad, Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation. I wish we (Canada, Canadians) would stop doing this to
23.Everything does a better job breaking down, and blooming, in Blake Butler’s Scorch
Atlas, which is at times what I wished The Drowned World could be (and closer to what
it seemed like it might become, at least in tone, because they’re obviously very different
24. Strangman’s entrance is one of the better parts of the book. A hydroplane piloted by a
white-suited albino does reckless circles over the lagoon, as its pilot fires flares into the
air from a silver revolver. Later, his men arrive in scows, driving forward a herd of
alligators. “A miniature Niagara of foaming water cascaded outwards, impelled by the
pressure of the tidal bore behind it, on which rode several square black-hulled craft, […]
paint peeling from the giant dragon eyes and teeth slashed across their bows. […] Halfdeafened
by the noise, Kerans stared down at the vast swarm of long brown forms
swimming powerfully through the seething water, their massive tails lashing the foam.”
The alligators are a great detail, but they’re hardly there, just like almost everything else
in The Drowned World. Strangman himself is bland and uninteresting, almost formulaic.
I never cared or worried about anything he does, though it seems like you’re meant to.
25.I think Ballard resorted to stereotyping as an easy way to resolve a book that promised
more than he felt he could deliver. Ballard does a great job of setting the table, but he
fails to provide a meal. That’s not necessarily a failure, but I found it disappointing.