Review: The Drowned World

20 Books of Summer: Book 5

J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and Concrete Island are both creepily brilliant, but The Drowned World doesn’t meet their high bar. The writing is spectacular, but the characters are too flat for my taste. They’re buried under so much allegory that they lack surface-level believability or function. In the past, I’ve admired that Ballard writes stories that work on multiple levels, but this is primarily a riff on Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.

The Drowned World takes place in 2145 when the ice caps have melted and flooded Earth. The world has returned to its prehistoric settings with massive jungles, gigantic lizards, and swarms of bugs. The heat is oppressive and the few people left live on the poles. A biologist, Dr. Kerans, and his team are exploring a flooded city and afflicted by nightmares. In terms of creeping psychological horror, these spreading dreams—everyone dreams of the same apocalyptic landscape—are appropriately skin-crawling. But while Ballard’s characters have always been cold and glassy, they’re absurd here. In High-Rise and Concrete Island, the absurdity felt well-earned as everyone slid inexorably into madness and depravity, but there’s no baseline here where the characters have recognizable motives. I’d get into the plot, but it’s too trippy to summarize.

Most curious is Beatrice, a woman living alone in the drowned city where Dr. Kerans is temporarily stationed. Her apartment has a generator and well-stocked freezer, but it’s full of unexpectedly lush things like foie gras. Her place is a rare spot of cool, drunken opulence. It’s unclear how this has lasted as long as it has, and it’s bizarre that she feels no stress about how it must end (even with all her drinking). Her scenes only work so long as the reader understands that they’re not about portraying a person so much as what she represents. Even when Kerans looks at her, he has a “tacit awareness of their symbolic roles.” (100) She eventually becomes a jewel-bedecked trophy, but before then:

Beatrice stood beside him, nervously fingering the collar of the jade silk shirt she wore over her black swim-suit. Although the apartment was beginning to look ramshackle and untidy, Beatrice continued to tend her own appearance devotedly. On the few occasions when Kerans called she would be sitting on the patio or before a mirror in her bedroom, automatically applying endless layers of patina, like a blind painter forever retouching a portrait he can barely remember for fear that otherwise he will forget it completely. Her hair was always dressed immaculately, the make-up on her mouth and eyes exquisitely applied, but her withdrawn, isolated gaze gave her the waxen, glacé beauty of an inanimate mannequin. (105)

The same goes for Strangman, the villain who shows up for the second half. His absurdity is immediately clear with his bombastic entrance in the lagoon, complete with alligator pack:

The alligators congregated like hounds around their master, the wheeling cries of the dense cloud of sentinel birds overhead, Nile plover and stone curlew, piercing the morning air. More and more of the alligators joined the pack, cruising shoulder to shoulder in a clock-wise spiral, until at least two thousand were present, a massive group incarnation of reptilian evil. (103)

Strangman (which my brain autocorrects to Strangeman) is like something out of Conrad, complete with all the racist overtones. In fact, he feels so much like a Conrad creation that he seems not to fit with the Kerans/Beatrice storyline. Much of the promise and dread in the early chapters—the endless heat, the shared dreams—are portrayed with qualities unique to Ballard’s style. If I wanted to read a book by Conrad, I’d do that. I wanted more Ballard and less Conrad.

Although the story left much unfulfilled, the writing is top notch. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the story, there were lines that I read and reread. It helps that I live in a hot and humid city, but if I didn’t I still would have felt the heat of Ballard’s scorched and broken Earth.

Regarding the abandoned cities:

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them—and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities has been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea. Their charm and beauty lay precisely in their emptiness, in the strange junction of two extremes of nature, like a discarded crown overgrown by wild orchids. (32)

Regarding the regression of the world back to its original state (I wanted more of this Adam-and-Eve bit and I don’t think I’ve said that about any book, ever):

The birth of a child had become a comparative rarity, and only one marriage in ten yielded any offspring. As Kerans sometimes reminded himself, the genealogical tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself, apparently moving backwards in time, and a point might ultimately be reached where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden. (35)

Regarding the creepy dream that infects everyone:

As the great sun drummed nearer, almost filling the sky itself, the dense vegetation along the limestone cliffs was flung back abruptly, to reveal the black and stone-grey heads of enormous Triassic lizards. Strutting forward to the edge of the cliffs, they began to roar together at the sun, the noise gradually mounting until it became indistinguishable from the volcanic pounding of the solar flares. Kerans felt, beating within him like his own pulse, the powerful mesmeric pull of the baying reptiles, and stepped out into the lake, whose waters now seemed an extension of his own bloodstream. As the dull pounding rose, he felt the barriers which divided his own cells from the surrounding medium dissolving, and he swam forwards, spreading outwards across the black thudding water… (85-86)

You see my dilemma, right? I can’t write nearly as well as Ballard. I’m impressed by this book even though I didn’t like it.

Overall: 4.1 (out of 5)

Translation: You should read it! If only to leave a long comment that explains some of the ending.

Reviewed

  1. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
  2. The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. Buck
  3. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith

Read (**off-list replacements, oops)

  1. Embers by Sándor Marái
  2. **Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
  3. **The Lost World by Michael Crichton
  4. **Snap by Belinda Bauer
  5. **Stiff by Mary Roach
  6. **The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  7. While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Need to Finish/Read

  1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  2. The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
  3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  5. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  6. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  7. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  12. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  13. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Note: Since I’ve read five books that weren’t on my list, five of the above will be bumped from the challenge-queue, but I’m not sure which…

2 Comments on “Review: The Drowned World

  1. “You see my dilemma, right?” —- Yes! This reminds me of a bad movie that is beautiful to watch.

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