Memoir from a Parallel Universe
Whatever else Simon Sellars may have achieved with this decidedly odd, troubling and ultimately brilliant artefact, he has succeeded in creating a document that is thoroughly ‘Ballardian.’
‘Ballardian’ is a comparatively recent term in pop-philosophy and cultural studies circles. Dubbed after the English author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) it has even made the Collins English Dictionary where is in part defined as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” Known early on as a Sci-Fi writer, he was, more accurately, a writer of Psych-Fi, exploring the often-twisted psychology of his characters, some of whom were named James Ballard, after the author.
Ballard had moments of both fame and infamy. Fame struck when Steven Spielberg adapted Ballard’s semi-autobiographical The Empire of the Sun, about the author’s upbringing during WWII. Infamy came earlier when his macabre novel Crash was published and it became widely known that the publisher’s reader rendered the verdict that “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” To put it as simply as possible, Crash explored the eroticism of the automobile accident. It was decidedly not for the faint of heart.
Which brings us to the Melbourne-based Simon Sellars. Sellars has long held an obsessive, arguably almost unhealthy, fascination with both the author and his creative outpourings, penning many an essay on Ballard, conducting the thorough go-to website Ballardian.com and editing the exhaustive Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008 published by Fourth Estate in 2012. He is, in other words, an expert.
But now things become fuzzy. In Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe, Sellars claims he had embarked on a PhD studying aspects of Ballard’s work. I say ‘claims’ because this is, after all, a “memoir” from a “Parallel Universe,” thus the PhD itself could be a fiction, a fantasised trigger for the ensuing events at the core of which would seem to be a severe nervous breakdown. That said, he most certainly talks the talk of someone undertaking a doctoral thesis in the zone of cultural studies. And Sellars knows his stuff, dropping relevant references and quotes from the likes of such European philosophers as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillio, citing relevant cinematic works and thoroughly dissecting and analysing the entirety of Ballard’s oeuvre with largely clinical detachment… at first.
It is not unusual for students to struggle with the rigors of undertaking a PhD and, for some, undergoing real physical and psychological trauma, and this is clearly what happens to the fictional(?) Sellars in Applied Ballardianism. He bails from the process, not once, but twice, dragging his readers through his feelings about being a failure as an academic. He transforms himself into a successful travel writer (this part is decidedly true – Sellars has penned two books for Lonely Planet). He travels to Tangiers to pinpoint William S. Burroughs’ Interzone. But everywhere he travels he is haunted by the spectre of Ballard. He encounters random acts of violence, reaching a point where it is Sellars himself who generates the blood-letting. No matter where he goes or what he does it draws parallels with Ballard’s imaginary mis en scenes. The slippage from reality takes on an epic scale as he realises he is going irrevocably insane, just like a character in a Ballard novel.
But is Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism a novel as we know it? The American cultural critic Mark Dery asks the same question: “But what is it, exactly? Postmodern autopathography? Rough Guide to the Desert of the Real? Notes toward a mental breakdown? The missing link between Ballard and Virilio, psychogeography and edgeland studies, Mad Max and Videodrome?” The answer is, in part, all of the above and even more.
At times Applied Ballardianism reads like a mutated and malformed PhD thesis that has shed its footnotes and found a way to become eminently, thrillingly readable, a psychological roller coaster, a global adventure story that leads us back to in inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, a twisted fun-house mirror of Ballard’s own Shepparton outside of London. It is a metafiction throbbing with dark visions, a ‘memoir’ worthy of a David Cronenberg adaptation.
It’s also a beautifully rendered analysis of the works of one of the 20th centuries most visionary authors, J.G. Ballard and whether or not in the ‘real’ world Simon Sellars achieved his doctorate, there can be no disputing that someone should grant him the honour – this is the best ‘thesis’ I have ever read.
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Urbanomic Media Ltd; 1 edition (12 October 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0995455074
- ISBN-13: 978-0995455078
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 3 x 19.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 358 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)