The Unlimited Dream Company – JG Ballard (1979)
‘From the moment Blake crashes his stolen aircraft into the Thames, the unlimited dream company takes over and the town of Shepperton is transformed into an apocalyptic kingdom of desire and stunning imagination ruled over by Blake’s messianic figure. Tropical flora and fauna appear; pan-sexual celebrations occur regularly; and in a final climax of liberation, the townspeople learn to fly.’
Blurb from the 1990 Paladin paperback edition.
Ballard plunges us headlong into a Messianic fantasy which begins when his hero, Blake, steals a Cessna aeroplane from an airfield and crashes into the river at Shepperton.
The setting is important as Shepperton is a place famous for its film and TV studios and stands symbolically in the British consciousness as a media Mecca.
Blake escapes from the plane, collapses, and is revived by the amazed townsfolk who tell him that he had been dead for about eleven minutes.
Following his ‘resurrection’ Blake begins to entertain sexual fantasies as tropical birds and flora start to manifest and transform the town into a jungle paradise.
The symbolism of the plane could be read as that of a cruciform, emphasised by the fact that the crippled children whom he befriends, collect pieces of the dead plane like the relics of a Saint.
Blake is involved with four people in particular:-
Miriam St Cloud: Miriam is a doctor. Her scientific scepticism is damaged immediately by Blake’s apparent return from the dead. Later she becomes – at least in the eyes of Blake’s followers – his bride.
Mrs St Cloud: Miriam’s mother. Blake engages in a feverish act of sex with her which transforms into a symbolic act of birth with Mrs St Cloud giving birth to Blake, born anew. Thus she becomes a mother figure. The father figure is the Reverend Wingate, a ‘father’ in the religious as well as symbolic sense, filling the role of father to Blake. Wingate is the first to see Blake’s ‘divinity’ and hands over his church to him to do with as he wants.
Finally, there is Starks. His role seems to be as a Judas and to oppose Blake. Indeed, some aspects of his life are the antithesis of Blake’s. he cages or kills animals or birds. Blake seems to generate animals and birds which are far happier and healthier than Starks’ caged specimens.
As Blake’s powers increase, Shepperton is transformed into a jungle and in his dreams Blake himself turns into a bird or whale and in turn transforms the townsfolk into appropriate creatures to accompany him. When he awakens it appears that the townsfolk seem to remember having the same ‘dream’.
The Messianic drama continues. Blake begins to heal people. He absorbs people into his own body (symbolic cannibalism) and, in a kind of orgiastic carnival, teaches the entire town how to fly.
As with many messiahs, his followers – led by Starks – eventually turn on him and he is killed again, his body left in the strange shrine-cum-grave which the disabled children have been building from dead flowers and Blake’s ‘relics’.
Then, by absorbing the life-forces of the creatures of the forest, he rebuilds his body, acquiring aspects of the various creatures of the woodland and rises once more, this time transforming the entire population of Shepperton and releasing them into what Ballard terms ‘the true reality.’
As in ‘Concrete Island’ the hero finds himself trapped in a specific environment, and is forced to either adapt himself to it or fight to escape. In this case, as escape seems impossible (the landscape recedes whenever he tries and he can never pass the barrier) he is forced to transform the environment to suit himself.
There are other Ballard motifs. We have the low-flying aircraft; his obsession with modernistic public architecture (a multi-storey car-park is the venue for Blake’s marriage to Miriam); the exotic landscape which permeates most of the book, and sexual fetishism and transference.
It is not an easy novel, but then Ballard’s novels are never easy to understand, but unlike other ‘difficult’ books Ballard’s work can be read for the sheer poetic beauty and the imagery alone.