JG Ballard, “The Unlimited Dream Company” (1979, 2014) & Jane Mai, “See You Next Tuesday”(2015)

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I found it interesting to look at Unlimited Dream Company through the lens of the previous Ballard novel I read, High-Rise. Both revel in the destruction of suburban symbols, the most carefully-maintained orders in our modern society – homes and businesses (the specific identities and descriptions emphasized in the same way the vocations and hobbies of the people are) become enveloped by the chaos unleashed by the events of the book, and the people themselves embrace it, having awaited the chance to throw off the shackles of their quaint lives. The big difference between the two, then, is in the nature of the upheaval – High-Rise was a savage apocalypse, its setting wholly separate from the outside world and left in a disgusting disarray, garbage and death abound – but the apocalypse in Dream Company is one where the urban is retaken by the natural world, with plants overwhelming the concrete and the sky dominated by birds spawned (pretty much literally) by Blake, and the people inspired to look to the freedom of the animal world. Ballard delights in describing these microcosms in their broken state, but only in this one does something more beautiful grow from the cracks – it’s not just erasure, it’s renewal.

In the plot as well, there is a tension between those two types of change (erasure and renewal, I mean), as Blake slowly learns how he will use his messianic powers to instigate what he sees as an improvement of mankind. Although mostly unaware of it at first, he initially thinks that the way is through destruction – and so many of his early encounters with his multiple lover figures is capped off with attempted murder. This is the underlying ethos for much of the book – even in his creation of life there seems to be a lack of empathy on his part, and when he tries to teach, there is still part of him that wants to take and horde the people he is trying to uplift. The natural beauty of his power is diluted by the depraved humanity that underlies him – he knows something important is there, but hasn’t figured out how to handle it in a decidedly unselfish way. His inability to unlink violence from his revolution is reflected also in his search for the person who revived him – an emphasis on their apparent strength, Blake’s musings that whoever did may have also tried to kill him – and although the answer is clear from early on, he still manages to elide that solution by antagonizing the figure in the plane, avoiding it because of its symbolic tie to death. He only fixes course in the end when he realizes that he was not resurrected in an act of violence, but in an act of difficult but necessary self-driven change, and so inspires others to find the same path.

The cynical (but often well-founded) belief in the inevitability of violence has been a core part in much of Ballard’s work, but in this case he presents an alternative view. Not one that eliminates the violence completely, to be sure, but one that shows it as something that is to be overcome, a part of a cycle of human reinvention. The anarchic free-for-all of Ballard’s text, in this case, has a purpose other than solely reflecting our own capacity to perpetuate it.

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This book really plays with its diary/sketchbook format – the scribbled lines and extra text in the margins suggests that every comic is stream-of-consciousness, but also thoroughly considered, reworked and drawn over to best get the story across. There isn’t a time line to any of the comics – which the introduction tells you upfront – so everything feels less like a straight diary and more like a series of recollections – everything in past tense, memories flooding back in response to something – with the short text pages (written in the same brush strokes as the the notes on the comics themselves, but larger, getting you to pay more attention to what’s written) indirectly commenting on the undercurrents of the comics, conflicts of identity and self-worth. The book is often having a conversation with itself, an ongoing project that is constantly self-reflecting even when it doesn’t make direct callbacks.

Identity plays a large part in the humour and sadness in the comics – the book is about a person named Jane Mai (referred to almost exclusively as Jane Mai), who may or may not reflect the life and personality of the author, who is also named Jane Mai. The character introduction includes three different characters named Jane Mai, as well as Nurse Janey, “a fictional character” – in the page before, the text that explains the non-linearity of the stories also says “I’m not even sure I exist tbh” – which is a joke, but also keys you in on one of the main concerns of the book – the identity in something autobiographical is never completely clear. Mai (the author) mentions it directly in one of the text pieces (and even in an introductory “making of” comic at the beginning), but there’s an idea in the world of diary/sketch comics (as part of social media) that you are trying to sell your personality, hoping the amusing or “relatable” details of your life will ingratiate you with the audience (“What is Jane Mai? She is a product I made and sold” she writes, “And the sadder she got the more popular she was” – because depression and self-esteem issues make for funny and very “relatable” comics, it seems.) This is only one manifestation – many of the comics and asides deal, in one way or another, with how you as a person exist for others, be it family, friends, or (if you’re a creative sort) an audience – you perform to meet their expectations, or to shrug off those expectations in your own way – but in either case, it may feel that everything is forced upon you by the rest of the world, and you can’t seem to escape wanting to shape how you are perceived.

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Tailoring your life details like that, however, can also be used as a distancing tool, to help avoid the internal and external pain by making others (and maybe yourself) laugh about it – but in See You Next Tuesday, it’s also clear that Jane Mai’s goal is to eventually be okay with herself, in whatever form that takes. The book is an intentionally scattershot depiction of that journey – there’s no definite line to say why it ends where it does, but that’s sort of the point.

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