Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars
Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2018
400 pages / Urbanomic
Applied Ballardianism is an almost apocalyptic novel, occupied by paranoiacs, uncaring machines, technological ghosts, dream realities, micronations, and mysterious thugs. The unnamed protagonist (who we might assume is the author himself due to the book’s subtitle, Memoir From a Parallel Universe) lives in a world haunted by the life and work of J.G. Ballard. Applied Ballardianism walks the line between theory and fiction. Sellars writes with the understanding that anything that happens to him can be understood through what Ballard has written. The author becomes the prophet, the writer of holy writ. His novels and short stories become sacred tomes, their contents divine.
The Ballardian of Sellars’ novel exists in a reality fragmented by the limitations of the lens through which it is viewed. The world loses its tactility, it becomes an accumulated mass of footnotes and figures. Each moment, the means of returning the mind to Ballard, of navigating a loose series of connections until the protagonist can find this sense of familiarity. He is not lured into these surrealities, so much as he is desperate to find them. In scenes like his trip to the Dubai airport—where he finds himself unable to enter the country and, rather than accepting defeat and returning to the mundanity of his everyday life, takes it upon himself to reshape the airport into a temporal anomaly. His surroundings become a phantasmagorical world, shaped by Chris Marker’s film of the same setting. We could go so far as to say that the Dubai airport of Applied Ballardianism is the same Dubai airport of Stopover In Dubai (Chris Marker, 2011). It is a slow and uneventful space, subject to the uninterested—even bored—tools of surveillance. But, where Stopover In Dubai uses these tools to undercut the drama of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s assassination, Applied Ballardianism begs for these tools to turn his reality cinematic. The Ballardian desperately searches for a means of fictionalizing his own existence. He searches for ways to imbue his reality with the theoretical implications of Marker’s film. He does not want to reference other work, so much as he wants to inhabit it. “She sat down two rows ahead of me. / She hadn’t seen me. / She couldn’t see me.”
Waiting at the airport, he finds himself concerned with who might be watching him. A conspiratorial form takes shape. Fiction makes every aspect of reality purposeful. Every stranger knows one another, every location is tied together with the same symbols. Rather than referencing the superficial qualities of a scene, Sellars utilizes these references as a kind of semiotic infrastructure. The unending references to Ballard become the webbing that connects each new location, each new moment in time. Applied Ballardianism, more than most, is built out of these intricate references, where inspirations are not only mentioned, but woven into the novel’s structure and vocabulary. And in this regard, Ballard and Marker are not only talked about, but they are emulated as well. Flickering between pastiche and collage. The reference becomes the novel. The world becomes violently and endlessly interconnected.
The Ballardian speaks with distant and ghostly figures in Japan, he’s followed by children in Tangiers, beat to hell by thugs (multiple times), and all along the way he speaks with a variety of people, all repeating the same short phrase: “Tune into the signal.” Often, Applied Ballardianism takes the form of a kind of hallucinatory travelogue. Where trips through Europe and Asia are detailed with memories of fugue states and strange encounters more than tourist spots and affordable restaurants. Sellars looks for mutations and distortions in the international simulacra. Searching for informants knowledgeable on the occult branches of academia he has found himself operating within.
And throughout this search, Applied Ballardianism’s desires as an erotic text become increasingly prevalent. There is a kind of perversion at work here. In the same way that Ballard’s Crash engenders the car collision as a moment of heightened sexuality, Sellars finds himself caught in the allure of these liminal spaces scattered across the globe. The hallucinatory travelogue becomes a linguistic tool. It converts these constant references to Ballard (and his work) into this previously mentioned semiotic infrastructure. The ghostly figures in Japan become occult cultural theorists. “Rather than paranormality, the dislocated realities endured by [Ballard’s] characters were merely the result of dissociative fugue states.” Wanderings through foreign spaces become a search for meaning and interconnectivity. In a scene towards the end of the novel, we listen in on a conversation between the narrator and his PhD supervisor. Flipping through pages of various novels and short stories, the narrator says, “Connections can arise at any point, wormholes into subordinate universes… I have learned how to see—everything is connected to everything else.” The supervisor looks on exhaustedly and dismisses the thought. Simultaneously, we realize that witnessing the vast interconnectivity of this semiotic infrastructure comes at the cost of the accessibility we have to our mundane reality.
This is where the car crash happens. This is where we enter the fugue state. Ballard invades your thoughts and the semiotic infrastructure becomes visible. “Tune into the signal.” You begin to see every way that Sellars has revised our reality into something that is deeply and endlessly connected. Each new figure is an agent of the greater Ballardian world. “Tune into the signal.” There are messages traveling overhead. You’ll never know they’re there until they find you. And when they do, you’ll no longer be able to avoid them. They’ll follow you wherever you go, leading you into the fugue state, into self-destructive scenes, and eccentric conversations. The signal turns the simulacra into mush. The facade is coated in dust and grime. Cracks become unbearably noticeable. The draw towards paranoia and occult mysteries becomes intense and erotic. The car crash happens again, only now you’ve done it on purpose. You’ve pulled yourself back into the fugue state. You’ve begun to search for the signal on your own. Tuning into CCTV feeds online and following threatening figures into foreign spaces.
And in these moments we are able to see what Sellars has done. He has taken Ballard and converted him into the subject of his own work. He has become Crash’s crash, the entryway into liminal space. And here might be where we find the most impressive moments of Applied Ballardianism. Rather than using cultural theory to inform his fiction as Ballard has, Sellars fictionalizes the theoretical apparatus itself. Plot is replaced with praxis, analysis, conclusions. The Ballardian’s conversation with his supervisor shifts from falling action to an elaboration on research methods. The narrative of Applied Ballardianism is built from the formation and development of the novel’s titular branch of theory.
Everything is Ballard. Every string connecting every picture. Every moment in time. Every third word in every third sentence. Theory becomes arduous and mystical. Conclusions are written before hypotheses. The narrator does not ask himself whether something connects to Ballard, he finds the means by which it must. And this is what Sellars has done so well. He has created a perverse legitimacy in these moments, and curated these analyses so well that you might begin to believe them, that everything connects back to the cult science fiction author himself. And all this has come to only accentuates the ghostly and subversive hyper-realities hidden all around us in plain sight. Sellars’ novel reveals the strings behind the curtain, everything that they’re connected to, and all of the paths that they have taken.