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'The Drowned World' was the first JG Ballard book I ever read, and I consider it the most fascinating, and engaging, of the initial quartet concerned with climatic catastrophes ('The Wind from Nowhere'; 'The Drowned World'; 'The Crystal World'; 'The Burning World/The Drought'). Ballard regarded it as his 'first' novel (rather cruelly condemning 'The Wind from Nowhere', which isn't really so bad).
Given that 'The Drowned World' is Ballard's 'first', or at least very early, work, it's supremely confident, yet economical, writing. The style seems more concise, and the plot more precise, than the other works in the quartet. At the same time, the subtext/s are packed in tightly: a lot of commentators will point to the Freudian and Jungian undertones, the apparent parallels with Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (explicitly denied by Ballard), Ballard's incorporation of Surrealist techniques and themes (perhaps novel here, but not a surprise to anyone familiar with his later works - the resonances between this and 'The Atrocity Exhibition' are fascinating in retrospect), and allusions to Shakespeare and classical mythology. I have no doubt that 'The Drowned World' can be analysed on these (and probably other) levels if you wish. Much of of the delight of the book is in Ballard's lavish descriptions of the bizarre externalities and it is easy for a reader to 'lose themselves' in the evocative landscapes. However, for me, 'The Drowned World' (much like 'The Crystal World') is all about psychology, not geography. What Ballard is really inviting you to consider is not the unusual world he describes, but how people react to, and behave in, such extremes.
Many readers feel that Ballard's characters (especially the lone female character of Beatrice in 'The Drowned World') are not sufficiently well-drawn to connect with, and it is therefore impossible to be interested in their their motivations and their decisions. I doubt this is an oversight, rather a very deliberate technique: he's not inviting you to empathise, rather to analyse. Ballard acknowledges explicitly that even the characters rarely connect with one another, that "their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams".
Julian Elfer's narration of this text is very good - a couple of odd pronunciations here and there, but the pace and tone is excellent.
As Ballard never disowned 'The Drowned World', I suggest it's a good starting point for anyone wanting to 'try' Ballard. My only negative comment would be that, in audiobook form, I found the last third or so of the book more chaotic than I remembered from my last reading (in written form). For me, Ballard excelled in the short-story/novella format - his books, such as this one, can feel like they pack too much in and/or 'run out of steam' before the finish ... but as notions of time always play such an important element in his writing, I'm comfortable admitting that perhaps this is a reader failing, not a writer fault.
The Drowned World was Ballard's first novel, and with its imaginative evocation of a submerged London, where iguanas prowl and prominent landmarks slowly sink into the sludge, it shows a huge amount of promise. Particularly fascinating is Ballard's portrayal of the devolution of the human psyche, as it turns towards a primitive state of being, which, Ballard argues, lies dormant in all of us, until triggered. It is clear that this is a writer not quite fully developed, however, as characters are poorly drawn, in particular the sole female character. Dialogue feels quite dated, and there are some questionable portrayals of black characters. I decided to start with this novel before delving into his others, and whilst it is not an entire success, his dystopian world has sufficiently sparked my imagination to make me want to read more. Skip the first chapter though - it is an introduction which is better kept to the end.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
What could easily ruin this book for you is the introduction. It’s written by Martin Amis, who I normally have some time for, but here he gives away so much of the book before you even start to read it. The publishers really should stick this kind of thing at the end.
That aside, three stars is a bit harsh in many ways because this is a good book that's well narrated and when I first read it many years ago the concept was new (at least to me) so it seemed imaginative. However, Ballard has written so many great books that outshine this, the three stars reflect more it's place in his canon than it's quality next to other writers work.
Having said that, it's basic premise (not the flooding) was, for me, total pants and I saw it as capturing the strange state of mind of one individual rather than telling a particularly involving story. Interesting but not great. I felt let down this time round.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful