Simon Sellars‘ Applied Ballardianism is part cultural theory, part fictional memoir, its narrator “fleeing the excesses of ’90s cyberculture” a young researcher setting out to “…systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit.” Andrew Frost interviews Sellars on the emergence of a brand new genre, the writing of the book, and the possibility of escape…
Photo: Simon Sellars, on Instagram
Andrew Frost: I saw a tweet recently that posted a four-page reading list of ‘theory fiction’. The list starts with Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe (52 BC) and then includes in publication order authors such as Blake, Bataille, Kafka, Adorno, Beckett – and Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition – then Virilio, Dick and Haraway, eventually ending with Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism. This was only the second time I’d heard of this genre, the first being when you mentioned it on Facebook. What do you make of this notion of your book belonging to what might be a brand-new genre, albeit one with deep roots?
Simon Sellars: That list is an interesting exercise, but I don’t feel a part of any genre. Most people see Applied Ballardianism as a hybrid work in that it combines theoretical elements with a fictional format, but even that’s not quite accurate. The subtitle is ‘Memoir from a Parallel Universe’ and I do see it as the story of my life at a certain moment in time, when I’d returned to my PhD on Ballard after a ten-year absence and was struggling to complete it. The apocalyptic and science fictional elements have a basis in reality – they’re psychologically true to my imagination and the way I viewed the world during that time. And the theoretical elements bubble to the surface, no matter how nonsensical, as the protagonist, my alter ego, tries to make sense of his life as a failed academic and stalker of the object of his desire: J.G. Ballard.
If people claim theory-fiction as a genre of the moment, then perhaps that’s because everyone is so bored with critical theory now. Theory has failed to make sense of a world that has become so extreme and chaotic at every turn. But we retain the primal urge to make order from chaos, to root seismic cultural changes in a comforting theoretical framework. Maybe that’s why theory has become unstable, frayed at the edges, spliced with other forms.
AF: Yeah, a kind of theory-fiction has been emergent since at least the 1990s, and the ‘science fiction of theory’ posited by some writers and academics, predominantly in the UK had some traction. It seems that at some level you’re engaging with the possibility of what that can do in terms of a kind of ficto-criticism. How do you feel being in this august company? Do you feel an affinity or connection with those writers beyond Ballard?
SS: The connections I feel are with French theorists such as Baudrillard and Virilio, who consistently wrote beautifully calibrated theory that blurred around the edges into something approaching science fiction, but to say I feel ‘connected’ to them seems arrogant. Virilio, the true Prophet of the Techno-Apocalypse, is a towering presence for me, and I think that with his death and a revisiting of his work, it’s becoming apparent how much he predicted the volatile nature of 21st-century life. Actually, Baudrillard and Virilio are the presiding deities of my book, aside from Ballard of course. I cite them extensively in Applied Ballardianism and I also have my protagonist try to emulate their style, although he speaks for me when he says: ‘I thought I’d be able to effortlessly produce a startling hybrid of theory-fiction, like Baudrillard and Virilio, but I simply wasn’t talented enough in either theory or fiction. All that emerged was torturous, meaningless phraseology crudely shoehorned into an incoherent framework.’ I simply don’t know the worth of my book at this point, and whether it should be spoken about in that sort of company. Probably in terms of a general trend, then yes, I suppose so – I seem to have tapped into a current, a formal revolution in what we understand as ‘theory’.
AF: I was wondering if you could talk about the genesis of this novel. You’ve written a few non-fiction books and co-edited the Ballard interviews collection, Extreme Metaphors, but did this book start out as non-fiction? What was the motivation?
SS: The original motivation was to have my PhD on Ballard published. Mark Fisher asked me to adapt my thesis for Zero Books in 2009. Back then, the project was called Applied Ballardianism: The Philosophy of J.G. Ballard. It was intended to be a reasonably straight translation of the thesis into book form but written in the style of the posts I’d been doing for Ballardian.com, a more conversational, literary tone. But re-reading my thesis, I realised I’d used all the worst clichés of academic-speak, like prefacing an argument with ‘I want to argue that…’. So many academics use this ludicrous phrase, which just reeks of mealy-mouthed fence sitting.
I always think of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when he’s ambushed by a man who talks so much he doesn’t realise Tuco has whipped his gun out. Tuco kills him, then gives the corpse some excellent advice: ‘When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.’ Likewise, with academics: when you have to argue, argue. Don’t blather on.
So, having to re-engage with this drivel and interpret it for a new audience was doing my head in. Also, in terms of my career, I couldn’t see the point. I was working as a sessional tutor and knew I had to get my PhD published to have any chance at career progression, but it began to seem all so remote, with or without a published book. My research topic, ‘nodes of resistance’ in Ballard, was too niche, too pretentious. Because I was so enervated, it took me three years to write the first chapter and by then the Zero contract had expired.
At that point, I was still hopelessly trapped in the sweatshop hell of sessional teaching, and that’s when the book began to take on the form of an insane alternative version of myself attempting to write a thesis on Ballard. It wasn’t a conscious decision to go down that path. Even though I’d lost the contract, I was still possessed by the idea of writing this book, so I just sat down at the computer most nights and that’s how it emerged.
AF: The book is written in the first person and I assumed that most, if not all of it, was at least partly based in part on your own experiences. But as I understand it, that’s not necessarily the case. Could you talk about the process of fictionalising your ideas, or creating a narrative, around certain Ballardian themes?
SS: You asked about theory-fiction, but I see my book as more in line with auto-fiction, because I think it’s hilarious when people assume that memoirs and autobiographies are telling the unvarnished truth about a person’s life. It’s impossible. The writer’s memory will always be contaminated by conscious and subconscious bias, a key theme in my book. So, when Applied Ballardianism slips into some of the more outlandish incidents, most of the time it’s a true reflection of how I remember a key detail of my life occurring, even if the reality diverges from the memory in a minor or major way.
There are also parallels with the way Ballard fictionalised his life story in Empire of the Sun, based on his childhood in wartime Shanghai, and its sequel The Kindness of Women, drawing on his adult life in England. In my book, there is a section that explores this process. The narrator appropriates Baudrillard’s ideas about the symbolic role of the clone in technological societies, and how perfect reproductions of the self become the ideal fetish object in the society of simulation. As the narrator argues, Ballard generated many versions of himself in his fiction, many ‘clones’, all based on his life story, rendering all attempts at explaining his work pointless because there is no single source of truth.
In fact, Ballard’s fictionalised life stories have become so entrenched in the way the public sees him that when real details of his life emerge, no one pays any attention. The fiction has invaded reality, emptied it out and replaced it with a parallel universe. In Applied Ballardianism, the narrator thinks this technique prophesies social media, where retouched versions of ourselves make up our multiple online personas.
The narrator is also fixated on something Ballard once said about Crash, his most extreme and shocking work. He said that Crash was his real autobiography, not Empire, the obvious candidate, or even his official autobiography, Miracles of Life. Ballard said Crash was true to his inner life, to the psychological turmoil he was working through after his wife died unexpectedly. When my narrator grapples with this, he’s indirectly telling the reader: that’s how Applied Ballardianism functions. He’s saying that this device is a comment on the fact that there is no authentic self in the age of spontaneous self-reproduction. And he’s saying that the book is precisely what it claims to be in the subtitle: a memoir from a parallel universe, a work rooted in my imaginative inner life, including extended periods of black depression induced by academia and my fading career, which in their overwhelming realness became my only true reality in a world of fake realities.
AF: Your book has a remarkably controlled sense of what constitutes the ‘Ballardian’ text: certain words, phrases and images are reminiscent of Ballard, but without becoming what might be termed ‘Ballard fan fiction’.
SS: There’s a passage in the book where the narrator dissects the cliched imagery that many people associate with Ballard: motorway overpasses, drained swimming pools, abandoned airfields and so on. With that, I was signalling that I was fully aware of how hard it is to ape his style without degenerating into platitudes, so I wasn’t even going to try. After all, the book is not about the protagonist wanted to mimic Ballard, but about being consumed by him. There’s a difference.
In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard has the central character enter a landscape described exactly like Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, with its melted clocks, weird facial imagery and bleak desert environment. He does this to suggest that the character’s inner turmoil has been projected onto the landscape and that he has lost all sense of reality because he is literally living inside his head – broadly speaking, the themes of Dali’s painting. In Applied Ballardianism, I’ve done the same. I’ve made my protagonist live inside a world described like Ballard’s fiction – like the cliched public perception of it – to show that he has lost all touch with reality, and that his obsession with stalking Ballard, with stalking the meaning of Ballard’s work, have been overlaid onto the physical landscape.
AF: What was the editing process like, either as you wrote it, or later?
SS: The editing process was intense. In between the loss of my Zero contract and Urbanomic coming to the rescue, I simply wrote and rewrote, over and over, until the blend of theory and fiction felt organic. It was incredibly hard to pull off something so technically difficult. I was repurposing phrases, sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs from the earliest drafts of my PhD, over 20 years old. I felt it was important to have the first attempts at my thesis survive as an echo in the book, given that the book originally started life as a translation of my thesis, but I found that it’s really hard to combine writing from decades ago with the way one writes now, let alone concoct a seamless blend of theory and fiction. It never felt quite right until I’d done at least ten drafts. When Robin Mackay from Urbanomic came along, that’s when the book really took off. Robin is a great editor and was alive to when I hadn’t pushed myself far enough and had become lazy or didn’t trust the audience to fill in the gaps. I enjoyed the collaborative process of working on the book with Robin, although in the end I couldn’t let it go. At the end, I’d become reduced to removing commas and then putting them back in, which I imagine drove him crazy.
I couldn’t let the book out into the world because writing it had become my identity. I first announced it on Twitter in 2009 and had loads of queries from people asking when it would be published. Every few years or so I would tweet ‘coming soon’ or ‘stay tuned for further announcements’. I think deep down I felt that if I finally published the book, which, after all, is my farewell to a life of studying Ballard, then my whole public persona, based on a certain knowledge of Ballard, would be punctured.
Now that the dust has settled, I feel liberated. With the publication of this project, I have finally completed my education at the feet of Ballard, almost twenty-five years on from when I wrote my first paper on him. The way I view the world, under his influence, has finally been solidified and I am OK with where it is has landed. It’s been a wild and crazy time living my life under the Ballardian lens, dangerous at times, as the book hints, although never less than thrilling. I owe Mr Ballard everything, but it’s time to move on.
AF: I was wondering if you could talk about the rather seemingly innocuous, if graphically bold, image on the book’s cover – it forms a crucial aspect of the narrator’s magical thinking.
SS: That image is a composite of two key paranormal moments experienced by the narrator. I don’t want to explain them here, because they’d be spoilers, but suffice to say these moments cement in his mind the idea that another type of world, a parallel reality, is bleeding through into his world. And these experiences repeat at key intervals throughout the story, sort of like breadcrumbs he must follow to find his way home, wherever that might be – or perhaps to escape this world and into another.
In fact, the image is a heavily retouched photo I took of a streetlight in the Netherlands when I was working as a travel writer over a decade ago. I remember thinking the light was so unusual, like an eye, and I was just drawn to its uncanny shape. In the book, the protagonist also becomes a travel writer but he becomes dissatisfied with it, as he did with academia, when his obsession with the occult completely controls his mind. Streetlights figure prominently in that delusion. So, the fact that a photo of mine has taken on this otherworldly sheen is perfect, really. When I took the photo, I never dreamed that twelve years into the future I’d write a fictionalised account of my life. But at some level I must have known I would, because here we are.
As Ballard warned: ‘Deep assignments run through all our lives. There are no coincidences.’
So, you see, the protagonist’s quest is ultimately futile, as is mine, because in the end it all comes back to Ballard. Always Ballard.
Who am I kidding? I can never escape.