No Exit -- "The Concentration City" of J.G. Ballard's

"The Concentration City" (1957) is one Hell of a story.  That Ballard named his leads Franz and Gregson and set certain bureaucratic procedural crime dramas around them made me think immediately of The Metamorphosis, but I'm not positive Ballard was intentionally riffing off Kafka here.  And regarding Concentration City's history there's multiple mentions to a time "before the Foundation" millions of years ago, which seems to be a gracious nod in Isaac Asimov's direction.

Hong Kong's concentrated high rises.  Photo by Michael Wolf 

Franz aims to fly in Concentration City (it was a dream he had) but there's really no room to fly in a city that has no open air space -- not even for a single bird.  Any available space is already occupied with construction.  So he hatches a plan with Gregson not so much to escape Concentration City but to ride the commuter train, a "Supersleeper" that connects the various Sectors and Federations of the city, West for as long as necessary in order to find "Free Space," as the going rate for space is a pricey $1/cubic ft.  After days on the "sleeper" Franz passes slums where space is as low as five cents/cubic ft., but those neighborhoods have been walled off so that no one can enter and those unlucky inhabitants who live there cannot leave.  No exit indeed.

Franz discovers that streets and levels of Concentration City go up to the millions, like 3,456,877th Street, another fascinating concept of Ballard's, and one he uses to great effect in conveying what is the most likely location of Concentration City.  It's like New York, Mumbai, and Hong Kong all combined, to roughly the hundreth power; this Concentration City so built up and out that each floor of its buildings are now levels of this hyper-concentrated, interconnected city, with perhaps only elevated alleyways separating the buildings, whose passageways through the floors of the buildings form what I gather is some semblance of a 3-D city, a matrix, built out in every conceivable direction, infinitely.  Ballard uses "infinitely" more than once.  Franz passes his time on the train drawing dreams, but the dreams are not his.  

After ten days of nonstop riding on the train, Franz discovers he is now heading East.  WTF? he asks the crew, who then inform him that the train he's on has always been heading East.  Huh?  When he got on it was heading West.  And when he returns to where he hopped on, at the mainline terminal three weeks later, how is it possible that it is now the same day as when he first left?  Either time folded or there is no time in Concentration City.  Ballard is building on his theory of time he began in "Escapement"(1956): that the future is now and the past may be present, on, from what I've gathered in commentaries, is his "time's malleable continuum".  Dreams and some unconscious element (collective memories?) backlight this story too, and from what I've gathered will eventually be the main stage of several of his later stories.

Beware "The Pyros" of "The Concentration City" -- nice ironic twist of Ballard's -- of those who wish to set fire to the tenements of Hell; but beware more the Fire Police, who'll send you to The Slums, the condensed ghetto where you can never leave.  As if anybody ever leaves Concentration City.  Whispers, or maybe shouts, obviously, of Sartre, abound in this escapist -- but at times startlingly profound -- intriguing read.  Easily his best story so far.

~ short film adaptation of The Concentration City


I also pulled Julio Cortázar off the shelf recently and read his story "Axolotl," a bizarre and intriguing glimpse at how when we take an obsession to its extreme, we might literally become one with our obsession.  There exist definite threads of similarity in thematic concepts between Ballard and Cortázar that perhaps I'll explore later in a future post (although I should add that perhaps, if we're to take Ballard at his vision, that future post of mine may already exist, if not in the here and now, then perhaps in the past).


Getting Attuned to the Surreality of J.G. Ballard's "Prima Belladonna"

I'm proceeding slowly through The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard in 2013, and hope to have at least something to share on each story eventually.  There's potential spoilers below.  First story up for study is  "Prima Belladonna" from 1956, a story originally collected in Vermillion Sands.

"Prima Belladonna" is told by an unnamed narrator as a reminiscence.  A recollection of a long-ago, idealized time known in his culture's history as "The Recess," that "world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer..." that lasted for a decade.  People worked only a few hours per day during this era of ennui, assuming our unnamed leading man is any indicator of the cultural norm, spending their hours not in labor but instead on balconies with beer, playing i-Go, a game described as "decelerated chess," as if chess (for the lay person, not a pro) wasn't slow enough already.

Ballard's got that wry wit going on repeatedly; I really enjoy his humor; the story is constant creative smarts and clever fun.  Ballard could also be mocking a particular strata in society with this sluggish setting known as "The Recess".  And that it lasted for ten years, much as recess in school -- or in the courts -- lasts oftentimes for ten minutes, points to parody.  There may also be some possible "i-Go"/Iago wordplay connotations, but I'm not going to work that hard right now to highlight them.

The title is perfect for the content of this story.  There's a diva, Jane Ciracylides, a "specialty singer" who may be a "mutant," performing in the casino lounge at Vermillion Sands.  She possesses "insect eyes" and "patina-golden skin," a body of breathtaking brilliant light -- "a walking galaxy of light" -- to die for.  She is the "Prima Belladonna" of the story title, though the title refers specifically to the "Bayreuth Festival Prima Belladonna," an exotic spider used in the pollination of a rare, highly prized, plant.

Before our leading man meets Jane Ciracylides (his business is across the way from Vermillion Sands), we meet him working in his music shop.  He doesn't sell ordinary instruments from any reality of ours.  Of course he doesn't.  Not in J.G. Ballard's reality, his tweaked surreality.  So there's no tubas or flutes; no trombones; no pianos.  Instead, he sells plants: "Choro-flora".  Stuff like "soprano mimosas, azalea trios" or "mixed coloratura herbaceous from the Santiago Garden Choir".  Each plant's "audio" can be switched on, like a radio or an i-Pod, so customers can hear what the plant sounds like prior to purchase.  You wouldn't download a song without sampling it first, would you?

The music store's -- and our story's -- centerpiece, is the "Khan-Arachnid orchid".  A rare specimen capable of twenty-four octaves, and invaluable also for keeping the music shop, a veritable greenhouse of choro-flora, in tune.  Plants, remember, like most musicians and especially prima donna opera singers, can be very temperamental at times, capable of "twelve-tone emotional storms,"and need ameliorative assistance of SO₂ or a "fluoraldehyde flush" to bring them back from potentially lethal precipices of "audio-vegetative armageddon".

Our narrator and Jane Ciracylides find an immediate attraction, that first afternoon she strolls into his store, eyeing his merchandise.  She invites him to her concert that evening, and soon they're dating, and eventually move in together.  But the relationship is doomed.  For sweet Jane cheats at more than just i-Go.  In retrospect, considering that explicit and shocking scene of what I suppose can best be called "cross pollination," witnessed by the dumbfounded narrator when he came home early to his music shop -- the story's climax you could say -- isn't it obvious that Jane Ciracylides from the time they first met in the store, was after something more than merely him?


Some favorite ideas not mentioned above from the story:

~ "Perhaps I'd listened to too many flowers".
~ Tchaikovsky section in store, popular with tourists.
~ The Khan-Arachnid orchid going "all ultra sonic," meaning the music shop owner would soon be getting complaints from all the dog owners in the area.
~ The concept that a plant's music could attract predators, whether "sonic, Emperor scorpions" or prima belladonnas with insect eyes.


I don't know offhand if studies of the positive effect of classical music on plants had been conducted by 1956 (just haven't bothered to google it) but if they had, I wonder if the seed of the idea for "Prima Belladonna" came to Ballard as a means of turning such a study upside down, and his conceptualizing of what the negative effects of classical plants on human(oid)s might be.  Conjecture.

And how prescient was Ballard's i-Go game, suggestive just in its very name, of our present day communicative and entertainment gadgets most of us now own and take for granted.

For more, here's A Jungian Take on Vermillion Sands, of which "Prima Belladonna" plays an important part.


He Was A Champion

I originally posted this piece in Oct. 2011 as They Are The Champions. But I'm reposting it again this evening in honor of the young man of seventeen (back row, third from right) -- my grandfather, pictured in 1932 -- who passed away peacefully on Jan. 1st, 2013.  I'm so thankful I got to say goodbye to him in person the morning of New Year's Eve, 2012.  He was impossibly slim and weak by then, but still so lucid, still so "there" -- amazing for a man less than three months shy of his 98th birthday -- and he still had a firm grip as he shook my hand as I got up to go, saying "thanks for dropping by, Brent, it was good seeing you."  I nodded at him and couldn't help but cry.  It was great seeing you, Grampa!  All those years you demonstrated personal sacrifice and perseverance through so many tough times.  What a great man you were -- understatement of the millennium.  Missing you greatly, Grampa.

Edwin Kneisly:  March 29th, 1915 ~ Jan. 1st, 2013 

Depression-era basketball team championship photo: Eldon, Missouri

My grandfather (third from right, standing) played center at 6'0'' on his high school basketball team.  Back in those almost antique days, circa 1932-34, there was a "jump ball" after every made basket.  No fast breaks.  No jump shots.  No slam dunks. No Hoop Dreams.  No recruiting.  No March Madness.  No NBA lockouts or prima donnas. Just pure basketball, in all its glorious and fundamental simplicity. My grandfather, who will turn 97 in March and is the lone surviving member of his team, has recounted many times the strange game that won them the championship by a score of 9 to 6. I've paraphrased his account below:

Eldon's opponent thought they could win the championship game by stalling, holding the ball for several (what must have been oh so embarrassingly uneventful) minutes each possession before attempting a shot.  Keep in mind there were no shot clocks back in 1932; a team could take twenty-four minutes to shoot if they wanted.  But Eldon's adversary's slow-down strategy backfired and the tables got turned on them; when, early in the second half, with Eldon already ahead by two points, the score 8 to 6, my grandfather got fouled and stepped to the free throw line.  He made the first free throw but missed the second, "I could feel myself shaking so," he's said many memorable times (and I cherish each time he's said it).  But he got the rebound off his own missed free throw; so, possession remained Eldon's.  Since three-point shots didn't exist in 1932, Eldon, with a three point lead, found itself with a "two possession lead," meaning that even if their opponent got the ball again, they'd still have to get it at least one more time after that, and meanwhile hold Eldon scoreless in the interim, in order to have a chance to win or tie.

"After I got that rebound, our coach called time out and told us to just hold the ball on offense.  He said if they want to stall on us and play like that, like a bunch of [expletives]," my grandfather chuckled, in remembrance, "Then he said lets show them how stalling is properly done!"

Eldon showed them properly all right, holding the ball -- and the lead -- for the rest of the game.  State championship to Eldon, Missouri, even though they didn't score a measly ten points!

The largest of the trophies pictured still sits on my grandfather's nightstand, in his assisted-care room.

My grandfather's coach (pictured standing, far right) -- shrewd coach if there ever was one -- once advised my grandfather before an important game to run non-stop no matter what, to never stand still in the post, because he'd heard their opponent's center smoked two packs a day, and figured if my grandfather wore him out in the first half up and down the court, back-and-forth constantly beneath the basket (the phrase "in the paint" hadn't been coined back then, as there was no painted area extending fifteen feet from the baseline to the basket), never stopping for a second, that the other team's center, a six-foot-five giant (a Manute Bol by 1932 standards) would get so winded he'd not be able to recover in the second half, since he smoked so much.

"Coach was right," Grampa said.  "He couldn't move to save his life in the second half; his coach was yelling at him something fierce.  We just smiled but didn't let them see.  We pulled away in the second half and won with ease."

Infinite Jest: Some Brief "Year of Glad" Observations, part I

Beginning with the first sentence of Infinite Jest, Wallace is outlining some of its core themes: Detachment, disembodiment, depersonalization, all resulting in disorientation -- a possible source, if I may borrow my LT friend, zenomax's, idea -- of the "realities behind the realities" in Infinite Jest.

Seated at the conference table for his admissions interview to get into Univ. of AZ, Hal Incandenza, in observing the three Deans seated nearby, does not "know which face belongs to whom."  He is uncertain of basic points of reference, where his position is in relation to others, for instance: CTs (his surrogate mouthpiece) location may be in the room, seated "to what I hope is my immediate right" (boldness mine).  Hope?  Hal doesn't know for sure.  Is Hal really "in here," or deceiving himself?

Hal says he is "in here" -- in the conference room -- but he isn't confident nor in control of his body: "I believe I appear normal" (boldness mine).  You believe, Hal?  You mean you're not able to just know?

"Normal," what for most of us is autonomic behavior in a meeting: appearing pleasant w/an approachable demeanor, appropriately crossing our legs and arms, making eye contact, following the give-and-take of a conversations natural cues, aren't automatic responses at all for Hal.  The communication and appearance problem of Hal's, in fact, is so obvious to staff at E.T.A. that he's been coached on how to "appear normal" for this important meeting, and w/not very successful results.  Because just his silence is abnormal and increasingly awkward-in-the-extreme, in an admissions meeting when Hal himself (and not his surrogate-mouthpiece-coach, C.T.) is supposed to be selling himself w/his own voice, showcasing his strengths and spotlighting why he should be selected for admission into the university.  It's an interview, Hal!  The idea is to talk, right?

But Hal is so far gone, he can't talk intellligibly, he's essentially attempting to act like a human being participating in a university admissions meeting, rather than just being a human being ... being himself.  But who is he?  Who is Hal?  Does he even know?  How can he when he's become disembodied from himself, disconnected from the reality of his circumstances?  He thinks he knows what he isn't, as he'll protest later in the chapter that "I am not a machine," but he has more in common at this lowest point in his life with a machine; with his namesake 9000 series computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey infamy, for that matter, than he does with just being ... just being Hal (whoever that is), the human being.

Hal is most assuredly a veritable machine at this point in the novel, and just as computers aren't always programmed for every possible contingency in a crisis, so neither has Hal been coached/programmed thoroughly enough to survive this fateful, forever life-altering, crisis.

Hal had contradicted himself a year earlier, Nov. 3rd, Y.D.A.U., regarding his not being a machine, in one of his Big Buddy sessions (pp. 117-118), where he mentored pre-teen students on life and tennis at E.T.A., selling his younger cohorts on the idea that the tennis drills and repetitions of E.T.A. life are vitally necessary so that your muscle's movements "sink and soak" into your "hardware, the C.P.S. The Machine language ... The Machine language of muscles" (boldness again mine). What he's describing is a body and mind becoming so conditioned to stimuli (the 3-D dynamics of tennis) that thought-reactions cease, replaced by autonomic responses, much as a computer is programmed by endless repetitive data in order to "react" to input.

In the essay Wallace wrote on Tracy Austin's autobiography, I believe it's titled "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," he related how disappointed he was by her (whom he'd once had a teenage crush on, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, something to the effect of) "banal analytical" ability.  She wrote in cliches and surface insights, and Wallace, expecting more from her, theorized her lack of depth was because the 100% of her body and mind that she had to exert 24/7 into tennis since she was a youngster, learning to turn her mind and muscle's movements into freed-of-thought, autonomic reactions, had drastically reduced, if not entirely eliminated, her ability to think or analyze except inside the rectilinear confines of the tennis court and its practiced cliches -- in that context of drills and repetitions.  Wallace lamented that it was as if Tracy Austin's ability to critically think outside of the narrow focus of tennis did not exist for her, and could not because of her early formative years of hyper-conditioning.  Which is the same kind of conditioning Hal and his fellow inmate-students underwent.