9ballMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

A hotel room is a prison

that changes from town to town
a bed four walls and a window
a clean and scratchy towel

A hotel room is a prison
that always waits for me
a prison with a wake-up call
and an in-house laundry

Mark Sandman

For the second installment of our series on business hotels I intend to re-interpret the standard business hotel experience as described in my earlier post through the lens of ReSearch’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations,” which I have been reading over the past few weeks. Ballard probably needs no introduction to the literate public, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.”

Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin. In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience feeds both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

The ReSearch publications are the premiere American versions of Ballard’s work, overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac. The volume which I am reading at present is mostly a record of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard’s archivist, David Pringle. After reading the transcripts of these conversations over the course of the past week it became clear to me that Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). This post takes up the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading through 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do indeed seem intertwined, and connected with time spent in business hotels.

i) Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains: “Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International, a personal obsession that I feel no urge to see in my own home, where I own no TV, but cannot resist when in its presence in a hotel setting, seems to me to exist somewhere between the ‘real’ world and the interiority of my own mind. The world as reflected through CNN International does have aspects of the surreal, especially in the consummately inoffensive manner in which it presents horrific international incidents interlaced with “the exquisitely paralyzing World Weather” and 9-ball tournaments from Bangkok replayed several times a day. This approach effectively colonizes my own imagination by rendering the unthreatening creepy and and the unbearable passe. The oddest thing about CNN International is that the news itself is actually not all that bad. Real news about real, important, global events, comes across the airwaves, but it gets somehow stripped on much of its impact through the presentation. Ballard in 1991: “We get the Newzak all the time. It’s been homogenized, trivialized, and there’s too much filler added to smooth it down so that it comes out like paste from a tube” (178). It’s not that the news isn’t there, it’s just that, pace Ballard, there is no room for either surrealism or real impact. Ballard explains that the Dali/ Bunuel films (Un chien andalou and L’ Âge d’or), so shocking at the time, would not work today: “The sight of people dragging dead donkeys through a dining room would {seem to be} some sort of advertising stunt–a beer commercial” (166).

ii) David Pringle on why Ballard is not a Marxist: “Ballard, being a good Freudian, is much more interested in the individual’s–yours and mine–collusion with what’s going on, our secret wishes, that in the idea of conspiracy–that there are conspiratorial entities out there trying to ‘get us’ {…} Ballard asks, ‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?'” (226).

“I accept the Surrealist formula: the need to place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible, to remake the world around us by the power of one’s imagination, which after all is all we’ve got. I mean, the central nervous system is faced with a world of Mariott hotels and ex-actors turned world leaders, dangerous medicines and you name it. The individual central nervous system can only attempt to make sense of this” (276).

Eventually, if he has even the slightest modicum of self-awareness, the business traveler comes face to face with Ballard’s question: “‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?'” This is because the enervating lassitudinal comfort of your standard Mariott is, in the worst possible sense, addictive. When you begin to run down the list of hotel features: airport pickup, bowing attendants, elevators, room service, air conditioning, permanently locked windows, security barrier, ubiquitous carpeting, fresh towels and soap, overpriced but almost appetizing meals, pool and hot tub, 9-ball on a loop, world weather, all these items add up to a simulacrum of a total existence that very quickly begins to edge out the rest of the world–there is no need to leave the compound and submission to the soft tyranny of over-priced conveniences sets in almost immediately. At the same time, CNN International allows the illusion of connectedness while in fact only furthering one’s suspension in the high-rise ether of the business hotel complex.

iii) “One has the illusion you’ve seen a place in fact when you haven’t seen it at all. All you’ve seen are the airports and the hotels” (288).

Ballard here hints at something I have long felt to be the case: all airports actually belong to a single country, and the vast majority of business hotels likewise sit uneasily within their supposed national confines; they are more like each other than they are like the buildings or community around them. The overpriced airport hotel in Tokyo resembles nothing so much as the overpriced airport hotel in Vancouver, which in turn is the kissing cousin of the airport hotel in Beijing, etc. Here again, local differences only seem to accentuate a central identicalness, like a community of suburban houses with garages on alternating sides.

iv) “People use mental formulas that they’ve learned from TV. Even in ordinary conversation, if you’re talking to the mechanic at the garage about whether you need new tires for your car, you and he probably talk in a way that his equivalent thirty years ago would never have done. You use–not catch phrases but verbal formulas. Suddenly you realize you’re hearing echoes of some public-information, accident-prevention commercial. It’s uncanny” (83).

Ballard has the strange habit of ending thought after thought with “It’s bizarre;” “It’s strange;” “It’s uncanny”–this verbal tick serves as a running indicator of the way that Ballard sees the world and helps explain how, over the course of a novel, he can focus on a certain object, a tennis machine for example, or swimming pool, with such relentless obsessed focus that the formerly normal becomes invested with a kind of pathological creepiness that entirely transcends simplistic one-to-one correlative symbolism (“the cigar in the text stands for the phallus”). His central point hints again at the colonizing power of certain ideas and turns of phrases which seep into our everyday speech, tempered only by feeble attempts to ironize. Thus, when in the course of normal conversation one refers to a storm as “an extreme climatological event,” to a sign as “singage,” or to a car crash as “a simultaenous intersection of vehicular components” the use of such terms, although masked with a patina of apparently self-knowing irony is still, in its own way, perfectly sincere. Here, submission to the linguistic idiocy of corporate non-speak marries submission to the blissful “non-ness” of the business hotel, a paradise of our own collective fantasy where the towels are always clean, the windows are always closed, and 9-ball is always on.