The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
Looking at the spread of colors, shapes, and lines smeared across the canvas that is J.G. Ballard’s 1979 The Unlimited Dream Company, it’s easy to get lost in the details, the view to the whole submerged. Superficially disorienting to say the least, the narrative packs a bewildering visual punch while beneath the surface lurk the powers of nature, myth, and beast — the book is certainly art more than story. Surreal is only the beginning of the description. For those uninitiated to Ballard, strap yourselves in and prepare for a ride — on erotic wings.
The Unlimited Dream Company, if it were the work of a visual artist, would be part of Dali, Paalen, or Ernst’s portfolio. With imagery jumbled and intense in semi-recognizable fashion, Ballard twists the story of the protagonist Blake in neo-pagan, erotic, primeval fashion, drawing on the leitmotifs of the eponymous poet/painter to create his picture. Either dead or alive after a plane crash in the opening pages, the young man finds himself on the shores of the Thames in Shepperton, with an odd group of people looking on. Psychotic at best, Blake wanders the streets of the area like a mad man, having wild sexual fantasies, tea with a priest, stating the oddest, most unpredictable of things to strangers, and assisting the zoo keeper. Shepperton slowly converts into a dense jungle of birds, wildlife, and flowers of all variety in the wake of his mad roaming, and the story’s focus burgeons into “inner space.”
In an interview contained at the rear of the version I read, Ballard states that in his fiction he is “trying to find the unconscious logic that runs below the surface [of real-life] and looking for the hidden wiring. It’s as if there are all these strange lights, and I’m looking for the wiring and the box.” True to his word, any attempt at understanding The Unlimited Dream Company on the surface is sure to fail. Rife with symbolism, repeating and evolving metaphors, and concepts presented in multiple-layers, the only way to approach the novel is to cast a net and draw connections between the ideas captured. Like making associations in one’s own self-conscious, the reward is cerebral.
Given that Ballard is aiming at this dream-like sub-conscious — perhaps the least-definable area of existence — it is no surprise that the ideas and concepts of The Unlimited Dream Company can be interpreted a multitude of different ways. There are the obvious analogies to Blake’s ideologies of free love, fusion with nature, and the roots of religion. But there are additionally parallels to even more basic concepts, such as eroticism, animality, and myth. Like all good art, the book can be appreciated for this variety of perspectives and angles, no single approach definitive.
A prose stylist, at all times Ballard’s narrative is so vivid it singes the cortex. Blake’s forays in the expanding jungle of Shepperton dash vibrant and gaudy images against the mind’s eye, slowly accumulating into grander and grander imagery that set that little something tingling in your spine. Heightening this effect is that the novel is written in the first person. Blake’s direct address to the reader touches upon something personal, making the imagery burn brighter and linger longer. Perhaps the greatest testament to Ballard’s skill is, however, his ability to keep a repeating image fresh. Birds, for example, are a never-ending motif of the book. At no time, however, does the reader say: “Didn’t I read that same sentence earlier?” or “This is getting tiresome.”
My only complaint about the novel is the title: it simply doesn’t fit. I can’t think of anything better off the top of my head, but, “Company” — the subject word of the title, i.e. The Company of Unlimited Dreams — has no part in the story, particularly given the organic, animal, anything-but-technical approach the novel takes. Given the overflow of surreal visuals, “Unlimited” and “Dream” undoubtedly apply. I’m just still trying to figure out the “Company” part… But I am nitpicking and will stop immediately.
In the end, The Unlimited Dream Company is fantasy only in the pedagogical sense. Having 10x more in common with Garcia Marquez or Rushdie than Tolkien or Dunsany, those who see the book labeled as fantasy should take this with the biggest cube of salt they can find: the book is anything but typical and is for certain tastes only. If “bizarre, non-sensical” writing is not your cup of tea, then steer away. If luscious albeit surreal imagery containing symbolism fundamental to the human condition is something you enjoy, then by all mean have a go. After all, I found a little bit of Walt Whitman, Philip K. Dick, Christopher Priest, and Vladimir Nabokov at work in the novel — strange bedfellows, indeed!
Very impressive review, Jesse. You have described the indescribable, captured the surreal, caged the primal animal of the unconscious, and done justice to a book that is almost impossible to grasp. I agree the title just doesn’t fit, though I can’t think of a better one. Perhaps “Fever Dreaming Shepparton” or “The Unlimited Dream Menagerie”? Even after reading all that Ballard last year, I still think this book and “The Day of Creation” represent his most difficult works (both chosen for David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels).