J.G. Ballard (1930-2009)
Hearing of the great writer's death means a change to the schedule, for a day - and Ballard will form the first exception to the 'one story per writer' rule of this site. He will be allocated a second one relatively soon; this I just want to write about briefly, on the spur of the moment as it were.
This story is archetypally Ballard; as Martin Amis said today on Channel 4 News, the style is unmistakable, it could not be anybody else's. Of course, Ballardian has now become an adjective and has had a tremendously productive influence upon music and culture, as detailed at this exceptional site: http://www.ballardian.com/index.php. Crucially, his aim is (the present-tense must be affirmed) to write of the here and now in a way few others have done. He embraces and inhabits the new forms of technology and existence that have marked the post-war world; all the better in order to satirise their effect on humanity in his mischievious yet serene way.
A New Kind of Man, indeed. Here, two contrasting gentlemen are placed in what is obliquely revealed - almost as an afterthought - to be a love triangle; and a bizarre one at that. Their very names sound like East Anglian places - Maxted and Sheringham - and the latter's eccentric obsession is archetypally English but displaced, taken somewhere else entirely. Sheringham is a 'rim, unattractive man, with his pedantry'; he almost appears like a Martin Bryce (of Ever Decreasing Circles) figure, still in Surrey but on different plane - part of a truly modern, radiophonically charged Britain. Skolimowki's The Shout (1978), adapted from Robert Graves's short story, also comes to mind, with its added element of John Hurt as an avant-garde sound engineer, tinkering at the edges - fighting a seemingly losing battle of sounds with sinister force-of-nature, Alan Bates.
Here, Sheringham seems a crank and remains so, but his recordings, truly a labour of love, take on a greater, macabre significance. Suffice it to say that we are talking Delia Derbyshire, Kevin Shields or Basil Kirchin type command of sound - though the use he puts it to is hardly similar. This story, in the way it inhabits technology is light years ahead of the television of its time - Billy Bunter had still got a few years left to run when this was published! Whilst there is a kinship of sorts with Kneale's Quatermass I would imagine that is more in the radiophonic sense rather than any thematic similarity (although it must be said that Kneale's excellent The Stone Tape, BBC2 Christmas Ghost Story, 1972, is a kind of MR James / Ballard meeting). This story was featured in this Resonance FM show, available for MP3 download here and featuring an excellent looking soundtrack: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2008/09/a-bite-of-stars-a-slug-of-time-and-thou-episode-10/
'Track 12', with its title evoking a forlornly unrecognised CD playing in iTunes, is another superbly twisted, confounding tale from a master whose stature can only grow. Along with Poe, Wilde and Angus Wilson, he has inspired my interest in the short story as a form and I will be surprised - and very pleasantly at that - if anyone's shorts are as consistently great as his are. The Ballardian is embedded in our dreams and nightmares - long may it linger and pollinate.