J.G. BALLARD HAS A certain strange obsession with obsessive characters. He has a proclivity for the words "chromium," "semaphore," "glans," and "nipple," a keen sense of ironic juxtaposition, a method of storytelling entrenched in myth, in the fever-dream, in the lost and hopeless quest.
The Day of Creation, a novel by Ballard, is the story of Dr. Mallory, a WHO physician in Port-la-Nouvelle, central Africa. It is also the story of the Mallory—a river named for the man; a river that he believes he created, that he intends to destroy or perhaps to save. Mallory watches as his river forms, filling dead lakes and ancient river beds, cutting a wide groove southward through the Sahara and finally into Lake Kotto in Port-la-Nouvelle. He immediately tries to stop the fledgling river, to kill it, with a hundred gallons of diesel fuel, a tractor, and a flare pistol borrowed from the local police captain.
Mallory had been occupied, prior to the birth of this river, with an irrigation project near Lake Kotto. As the patients at his clinic dwindled, he spent his time supervising the drilling of artesian wells. He dreamed, he says, of a "third Nile," of a "green Sahara, perhaps named for myself, that would feed the poor of Chad and the Sudan." Why, then, does he intend to destroy the River Mallory? To protect his wells, of course: "As soon as I drain the stream," he says, "I can return to the drilling project."
The river, instead of expiring, nearly drowns the doctor. And as he recovers, it continues to grow. Risking his life, Mallory steals a boat and begins to travel toward the river's source. Aided by Noon, an eleven-year-old African girl who once tried to kill the doctor and now seems to be entering into some strange courtship with him, Mallory sails through rebel territory. The pair are pursued by the earlier-mentioned police captain, as well as a group of vengeful widows aboard a floating bordello, and a myopic documentarian and his guide.
Beyond this quick sketch, there is no real plot.
THERE ARE ECHOES HERE of Heart of Darkness, of The Mosquito Coast, indeed of Homer: the descent into some stagnant underworld, the obsessive quest, the eccentric cast. And with such a title as "The Day of Creation," of course, there is certainly a great deal of Genesis in this work (chapter headings include "The Creation Garden" and "The Naming of New Things"), a great deal of Eve in Noon as she leads Mallory single-mindedly toward the source, a great deal of Noah in the secret of the widows' hunting trips and in their ship, the Diana, doubling as a floating zoo.
This novel oozes myth. It begs entry into our collective subconscious, our canon, our meme-pool—whatever it is you want to call the soup of ideas and images that we share, that we build upon. It wants so very much to be important. And there are places it nearly succeeds: the image of a forked river blocked off in netting and refuse, twin cups of the same bra; Noon tapping her teeth with a cassette as if attempting to speak by proxy; the Japanese camera-woman asking Mallory matter-of-factly if he's going to be executed—these remain in the mind. But the center of the story is an aimless quest (or at least one with confused and contradictory aims), a mess of senseless obsession that works in tone and artifice and poetic musing, as a piece of marginal literature, even—but as a story, a myth, it does not.
I'VE READ A BIT of Ballard—three or four books. He has a line of quite attractive trade paperbacks put out by Picador USA on my side of the Atlantic: the kind with crisp, glossy cover-art and titles in all lowercase and cover copy that's double-spaced. It all looks very modern, and for some reason this matters to me. For some reason, I'll pass the "b"-s in my favorite Borders book store and more often than not pick up one of these slick novels. The prose is good but not extraordinary—a little too verbose, a little too British. But I page through one book or another, then I glance at the back cover, read the little synopsis, read the little bio. Ballard, it says, "is revered as one of the most important writers of fiction to address the consequences of twentieth-century technology."
And this is where I cough.
I mean, The Great Gatsby could be said to address the consequences of twentieth-century technology. So could You've Got Mail. And I can think of quite a few more realistic consequences of modern automobiles and Ikea furniture than the far-fetched erotic confusion of Ballard's Crash. In the literal sense, the above quotation seems to me, well, silly.
But I think we all know what it's intended to mean. Ballard is (it's saying) a writer of serious science fiction. He's not a science fiction writer, but he uses science fiction (technology) in his serious literature. This is exactly the sort of self-importance that's the source of the vague distaste I feel every time I read J.G. Ballard.
The Day of Creation is a good novel, written better than most. But it is not nearly as important as it wants to be.
The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard
248 pages, Copyright © 1987 by J.G. Ballard