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by J.G. Ballard

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0312422849
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In Empire of the Sun (1984), Ballard turned his searing childhood memories--of prison-camp experiences in WW II Shanghai--into fiercely effective autobiographical fiction. This episodic sequel begins again in Shanghai but quickly moves to England, as narrator "Jim" explores sex, marriage, fatherhood, and friendship through the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. The opening chapters return to the horror of the Shanghai bombing and the Lunghua prison-camp; worst of all, at war's end, 15-year-old Jim witnesses the torture-murder of a young Chinese prisoner--a monstrosity that will haunt him always. As a reed student at Cambridge he tries to exorcise corpse-filled memories by calmly dissecting a cadaver. A short stint in the RAF--another attempt at confronting the violence within--is equally unsuccessful. So Jim instead forgets the past by settling into a cozy domestic present: marriage to earthy Miriam, three children, a quiet life in suburban Shepperton (near England's film studios). But Miriam's sudden accidental death, during a vacation in Spain, reawakens Jim's sense of dislocation--just in time for the "crazed" 1960's. He tries LSD, unorthodox sex (with a rich, kinky young American woman), curates an exhibition of crashed cars--"a potent symbol in the new logic of violence and sensation that ruled our lives." He broods upon the media-zation of postwar society, as embodied by a friend who becomes a TV psychology-guru. . .and ultimately films his own death from cancer. But the wounds from Shanghai never fully heal, not even when Jim--after the success of Empire--has a cathartic (and erotic) reunion with the governess (now 60-ish) whom he lusted after as a teenager. The psychology here often seems simplistic; so does Ballard's socio-historical view of the postwar decades. And the many sexual encounters are stronger on clinical detail than emotional impact. Still: sporadically involving and occasionally disturbing memoir/fiction from an always-interesting writer.