Ghost Milk: Calling Time On The Grand Project
Hamish Hamilton, 2011
320 pp., $45.75
The Ghost Writer
In that sense, one might say that he wrote about what Shepperton was (invisibly to others) on the way to becoming. In his dystopian speculations Ballard is as much of a psychogeographer as Sinclair; and Sinclair clearly believes that Ballard drew strength as a writer from that half-century of close observation of a small piece of Earth:
I wondered why, after his great success with Empire of the Sun, he didn't relocate to one of those balconied, sharp-edged properties that were so attractive to the convalescing and blocked advertising men who populate his books. Foolish thought. Ballard was a working writer, first and last: the where of it was not to be disturbed. Fixed routines served him well; so many hours, so many words. Breakfast. Times crossword. Desk overlooking a natural garden. Stroll to the shops to observe the erotic rhythms of consumerism. Lunch standing up with World at One on the radio. Back to the study. Forty-minute constitutional down to the river. TV chill-out meditation: The Rockford Files rather than Kenneth Clark.
Ballard had no need for ostentatious slumming or for cultural striving under the guidance of the learned and urbane Clark, host of the famous BBC series Civilisation. (And anyway, who needs to learn about civilization when civilization is what's dying?) According to Sinclair, Ballard's loss of his driver's license in the 1970s merely helped him to focus on all that he could learn within walking distance of his house, which, as it turned out, was more than enough. Sinclair seems to see Ballard as someone who could be evisceratingly critical of modern life without being personally fretted by any of it—in contrast, it would seem, to Sinclair himself. Sinclair concludes one of his meditations on Ballard with the following signal compliment: "Ballard was nothing if not precise. He said what he meant and he meant what he said."
4. In the last chapter of Ghost Milk Sinclair voyages to America, which he perceives always through the scrim of the movies he's seen: Texas via Red River, San Francisco via Vertigo. This doesn't bother him, because he holds to the view that America "remains a tabula rasa, bereft of ghosts …. Writing in London is about archaeology: trawling, classifying, presenting. Here it is the blank page of an elephant folio." These are tiresome old clichés, lacking even the truthfulness residing in most clichés; which makes one wonder why Sinclair would bother to come to America in the first place.
The answer brings us back to Ballard, by a circuitous route. Sinclair comes to Texas to visit his own literary archive, which he sold some years ago to the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas. He is self-scornful about this: we recall the subtitle of Ghost Milk ("Calling Time on the Grand Project") when he writes, "I became my own grand project and sold the memory-vault for the dollars to keep me afloat for another season." And then he tells us that when Ballard had been approached to sell his literary remains, he told everyone that they didn't exist, that he had discarded or burned everything he had made and whatever had come his way.
Only after his death did Ballard's children discover that he had in fact kept it all, from documentation of his time in the Lunghua internment camp to his school records to complete and meticulously edited manuscripts of his novels. His family ended up selling the hoard to the British Library, just a few miles from Shepperton, still within the metropolis that he and Sinclair loved. Meanwhile, Sinclair's stuff lies in Austin: an old hard drive awaits repair and recovery, but "everything else, my false starts, abandoned projects, drafts, proofs, corrected typescripts, had been sorted, listed, entombed."