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Essentially a biographical follow-up to 'Empire of the Sun' - this work follows JG Ballard as he makes his way in the world, from University to his period in the Royal Air Force during his National Service, to his eventual long sought sexual liaison with a female friend. Ballard follows Peggy to Cambridge in an attempt to become a doctor. For Ballard, the ancient edifice leaves him cold, describing it as a "fake gothic pageant with a cast of a thousand bicycles". Peggy worries about Jim and his decision to dissect a female cadaver at the medical school. She believes he has not changed since their time together as children in an internment camp during World War II. With his love rejected, Jim strikes out in the world and meets Miriam - thereafter becoming a volunteer in LSD sessions and developing his now infamous exhibition of crashed motor vehicles. Along the way we take in the BBC, CND and the JFK assassination, as Ballard strives for sense in an increasingly maddening world.
When Ballard hits middle age, he becomes pretty much a liability. The drug tests and the controversial 'Attrocity Exhibition' seem quite childish. It's as if he never grew up. Although a follow-up to 'Empire of the Sun' this work is far less popular. Shame really, because it is a better read. There is something rather amusing about watching a man (other than yourself) make such a mess of his personal life. Ballard probably felt he was living a controversial middle age and feels the need to let us know too. He throws in a few references to an SS training film, half expecting us to gasp; not realising we are on his side as readers. Ballard's audience is not that easy to shock. This is no criticism of the work - I didn't read it in order to be shocked. I read and enjoyed it because it gives a firm base to the characters in his fiction; the psychotic male doctor, the easily led writer, the dismissive female scientist. All these people existed in Ballard's life and he was apparently obsessed with them all, judging by the amount of times they keep popping-up in his novels.
The Kindness of Women, is JG Ballard’s sequel to his most well known novel Empire of the Sun. Where as Empire dealt with the years that Ballard spent in a Japanese Prisoner of War outside Singapore, Kindness begins it’s tale here and leads us through Ballard’s life following the end of the war. A journey which takes us through the world of a man attempting to come to terms with his wartime experience and looking for the answers to his own existence. It is also a fascinating tale of life, death, drugs, love and sexual desire within a world accelerating into the future The Kindness of Women, begins in Singapore as we fill in some of the gaps of Jim’s (Ballard’s) life, during his incarceration in the Lunghua P.O.W camp and some of the events pre and post the outbreak of war. The first thing that becomes apparent is that gone is the adventurous innocent of the Jim we know from ‘Empire’ and instead we have a portrayal of a young man’s growing sexual desire. The theme of sexual desire is one that is strongly projected through out the novel. This theme reoccurs at regular intervals throughout the story, be it via the dissection of a middle age women , during Jim’s short attempts at becoming a doctor or in the later chapters of Jim’s life when he is dealing with the death of those who he have befriended and loved. Ballard paints a picture of sexual desire , that is not only powerful (some of the sexual encounters are described in a very graphic manner) but also in a touching and moving manner. For Ballard sexual desire and the control and realisation of sexual desire are an important factor in the transformation of a boy to a man. The other main theme that is dealt with in ‘Kindness’ is that of death. Jim’s life is haunted by death, from the horrors of war to the death of his wife in a bizarre accident. Everywhere that Jim goes death seems to follow. Linked in to
this is age old question of morality and the meaning of life. A question that Ballard attempts to find an answer for, but knows he will never will. This links into the whole area of sexual desire again, where the need for female companionship and the need to understand one's own mortal existance became entwined. Ballard also creates an interesting critique of the ways modern life has tried to hide the truths of death. He uses the examples of the Vietnam war and the Kennedy assassination as ways in which death has been reduced to almost pornographic nature. Ballard via the eyes of Jim attempts to make sense of the confusion and reductionism of life and death in modern society. His also sees his friends all attempt to find their way through the confusion of modern life. he sees one friend became the media , whilst another end up in a mental hospital unable to deal with the pressure of a rapidly changing world. It is this attempt to find the answer to life’s riddle, that leads Jim to experiment with LSD. The results however just lead to more confusion , as realisation that there is no real answers to begins to dawn on Jim. Even though the book, in reality is an autobiography of Ballard’s life, there is nothing within the novel, apart from the first person viewpoint of the narration to confirm this. ‘Kindness’ to a reader unaware of Ballad’s other work and personal history, could easily see it as a work of true but very enlightened fiction. Like Empire this does open up the question of whether of all the events and details of the novel are real occurrences from Ballard’s life or if some of them have been reconstructed to create a more entertaining and coherent story. It could easily be argued that some aspects of the story may have been overplayed , whilst other events in Ballard’s life are omitted in to fit more snugly into the framework of the story. However Ballard does give
away that the tale in autobiographical. The main way this is done is via references to the real life events that shaped some of Ballard’s other novels. So from Ballard’s car accident and his exhibition of wrecked cars, we get the seeds of his infamous novel Crash. From his discussions of a rapidly changing world and the visions of the future spurred by the Space race, we get the basis for much of Ballard’s Sci-Fi writing. Where Ballard really succeeds though is that unlike other autobiographical stories, is that he doesn’t get bogged down in name dropping and self celebration. The other thing is that there is no real mention of Jim actually being a novelist, unlike certain writers who only seem to be able to write characters who are a reflection of their own occupations (Hello Stephen King) .Towards the end of the novel we get to read about the making of the Empire of the Sun movie, no where does Ballard name check the director or the actors of the film. Instead we get a portrayal of a man realising everything has come full cycle and once again finds himself in the streets of his Childhood Singapore. The Kindness of Women, once again proves why Ballard is one of the greatest living writers. Not only does he write in an engrossing style but he also deals with the issues of life in a intelligential but humanist manner. Neither does he lecture or set out any form of agenda, instead he attempts to find some sort of order and understanding within the chaos of modern life. The Kindness of Women is not just an autobiographical tale it’s also a sharp and heart warming study of the confusions of modern life.
This really was quite a disappointment. Until I read this novel I thought I liked J.G.Ballard as a writer. 'The Kindness of Women' is the sequel to 'Empire of the Sun'. It is the story of how James loses his childhood years and grows up too quickly during the war years in Shanghai (and after). He is thrown into an adult world of drugs and sex. Somehow he gets through it and ends up with a wife and family of his own. His own children help him to recoup some of those missing childhood years. This book seemed to me to be so different from the style I would have expected from J.G.Ballard that it could have been written by a different author. A real disappointment!
Sequel to Empire of the Sun. Jim returns to England.