The Drought – JG Ballard (1965)
I’m not clear if Ballard ever composed poetry, although I’m of the opinion that if he didn’t then he should have.
This is an expanded version of the original 1964 novel, ‘The Burning World’ and is one of a quartet of post-apocalyptic novels Ballard wrote early in his career, which may well have been based on the concept of the four alchemical elements. This is the fire section.
It’s not perfect by any means. Other reviewers have remarked that there is a surplus of characters. Of the males, those with similar names, Johnstone, Jonas, Jordan, get confused very easily early on in the novel.
There are also perhaps too many female characters. We have Judith, the wife of the central character, Charles Ransom. Then there is Vanessa, daughter of a somewhat deranged local priest, Mrs Quilter, Catherine Austen and Miranda, the sister of the local rich man, Richard Lomax.
Perhaps deliberately Ballard has set his town, Hamilton, in an indeterminate location. It could be America, but none of the characters appear to employ any US phraseology.
In the near future, industrial pollutants have caused a thin film of resilient polymers to spread over the sea, preventing evaporation and precipitation. Thus there is no rain and the lakes and rivers of the world are drying up.
There is a lake in Hamilton where Ransom has a houseboat, but the level is slowly sinking and as the drought turns the land into a desert, the nature of humanity and society begins to change.
Another houseboat resident, Mrs Quilter, lives with her encephalic son, known only as Quilter, or Quilty to his mother. There is a theme of transformation or possibly transmutation running through the novel and perhaps it is Quilter who, much like Dick’s Hoppy Harrington in ‘Dr Bloodmoney’, benefits most from the disaster and blossoms into something new and powerful as the deserts begin to reclaim the land.
Some of Ballard’s later trademarks appear here. Miranda Lomax, who is eventually transformed into a huge Earth Mother figure who has borne three children for Quilter, makes her home in a drained swimming pool. Mannequins gaze bleakly from the windows of abandoned department stores, the eroded wrecks of ships and boats become metaphors for another theme, that of time.
Ballard was always fond of beginning a chapter or a story with a reference to time, as here, when Chapter One begins:-
‘At noon, when Dr Charles Ransom moored his houseboat in the entrance to the river, he saw Quilter, the idiot son of the old woman who lived in the ramshackle barge outside the yacht basin, standing on a spur of exposed rock on the opposite bank and smiling at the dead birds floating in the water below his feet.’
Time is mentioned often and Ransom comes to realise that time has stripped away the superficial veneer of society from all those he knows with the peculiar exception of his wife, whose personality, so it seems, had already been whittled down to its true core before the disaster.
Ransom’s narrative is a journey, from the nearly drained lake down to the sea where he spends ten years living a hand-to-mouth existence with Judith.
Philip Jordan, a reclusive young man whom Ransom knew as a teenager, has undergone his own transformation and become the Captain on one of the landbound ships of ‘the settlement’. He still retains a solitary streak and, as Ransom discovers, has been restoring a hearse in an abandoned villa; an automobile they will never be able to start.
After seeing a young lion, (perhaps the descendant of creatures Catherine Austen released from the zoo) prowling the salt dunes produced by the distillation plants, Ransom realises that there must be water somewhere between the coast and Hamilton. He, Mrs Quilter and Philip Jordan decide to return to the old town.
Ballard’s work is seldom easy to read, and inevitably features characters with psychological problems and ambiguous motives.
Very early on in the novel a group of fishermen adopt a warped Neo-Christian practice in which they pursue men through the streets with nets, dumping them into the hold of a ship as one would with a good catch.
Richard Lomax, in another act of transformation, devolves into a sexually ambiguous figure.
Perhaps the best metaphor for the novel itself is Ransom’s framed picture of ‘Jours de Lenteur’ by Yves Tanguy, which he cut from a magazine.
‘With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, this painting had helped to free him from the tiresome repetitions of everyday life. The rounded milky forms were isolated on their ocean bed like the houseboat on the exposed bank of the river.’ (Chapter 2 – Mementoes.)
These objects, ‘drained of all associations’ could well be the people in Ballard’s novel, stripped to the kernel of their real selves.
The concept of superficial layers being stripped away to reveal a truer reality is a common Ballard theme and here this concept is mentioned during the narrative.
There are various literary references in the book. Characters from ‘The Tempest’ and ‘King Lear’ are used as comparisons for some protagonists. Lomax’s sister is actually called Miranda which adds another dimension to the Shakespeare motif.
Flawed though it is, it still remains a novel that hangs in one’s thoughts.