Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 July 22 • Friday

As expected, J. G. Ballard's The Drought (1964, a.k.a. The Burning World) has practically nothing in common with Charles Einstein's The Day New York Went Dry (also 1964).

One of the differences is that the front and back covers of my edition do have some connection with the text.

The difference in tone is apparent in the first line of The Drought: "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".

Ballard's novel follows Ransom and a handful of other characters, including Quilter, as they adjust to a world without rain.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Ransom puts off the apparent inevitability of following everybody else to the ocean's shore. When he finally gets there, he finds that the military is desalinating ocean water while forcibly keeping back the thousands of people who want to get to the beach.

(A fascination with the ocean and its identification with human subconsciousness come up in Ballard's writing several times.)

Part two begins ten years later, where a settlement harvests ocean water and removes the salt with homemade stills. Ransom doesn't belong to the settlement but is a water pirate, stealing water from the organized groups.

In part three Ransom leads an expedition back to where he used to live and we discover what happened to Quilter and the eccentric architect Lomax.

The whole book has qualities of nightmares and anxiety dreams. People are stalked by lions and other predatory animals released from zoos. One character becomes obese from cannibalism. And Ransom's life among the salt dunes of part two is like something from Woman in the Dunes.

(Quite a bit of what I've read of Ballard so far reminds me of Hiroshi Teshigahara's movies of Kobo Abe's books.)

The Drought is dream-like, disturbing and hypnotic. Like a lot of Ballard's writing, the ending does not wrap things up neatly but leaves you with uncertainty and trepidation. Surreal imagery abounds. The book begins and ends with references to Yves Tanguy's "Jours de lenteur".

"Jours de lenteur" — Yves Tanguy, 1937