J.G. Ballard’s One-Man Worlds

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J.G. Ballard’s One-Man Worlds


  1. Introduction

What would happen to a human being left for a considerable time in complete isolation? This question that, according to Ludomír Doležel,[1] best summarises Robinson Crusoe also haunts James Graham Ballard’s fiction. The answer is consistent across the Ballardian creative universe: inner retreat and the generation of a parallel world dangerously detached from consensus reality.


In an essay entitled “Which Way to Inner Space?” (1962), J.G. Ballard revealed his interest in physical and psychological interiors to be a creative source in his work: “the biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored”.[2] In this essay, the author was specifically referring to his rejection of traditional forms of science fiction, manifesting his desire to distance himself from them so that he could exploit in his writing the potential of this genre as a means for self-exploration. This idea gave birth to one of his distinctive features: Ballard’s “psychogeographies”, the fusion of mind and built environment, populate his novels and short stories, as well as his fictionalised autobiographies.

Space occupies a primordial position in Ballard’s texts, in so far as it transcends its ordinary function as a “place of action” to become an “acting place”.[3] In most of his fictions space influences story, and story becomes subordinate to the presentation of space. And it is closed spaces that particularly illustrate the conflictive relationship between the modern subject and his environment. Ballard’s own biography, marked by a disaffiliation with the different places in which he lived,[4] has been remarked as being a source of inspiration to his writing.[5]


The mechanism of endowing space with the prominence of an event or a character is best condensed in the claustrophobic novella High-Rise (1975). The action takes place in a 40-storey apartment block located in London. In it there are schools, shopping centres, banks and swimming pools, so that the building’s interior caters for every need and provides every comfort for its inhabitants, who rarely leave it. The architectural form of the building corresponds to the vertical social structure within; its interior stability collapses (lifts, stairs, food supplies) when various outbreaks of violence and anarchy shake this “vertical city”.[6] This built structure, the physical characteristics of which mirror the action to follow, encapsulates the idea that monstrous constructions create monstrous beings. This is made evident within the first pages of this novella: “Laing found something alienating about the concrete landscape of the project – an architecture designed for war, on the unconscious level if no other”.[7] Ballard’s architectures are experiments of testing the psychological cohesion of the communities they enclose, and frequently prove to be failed contingent structures. This pattern is repeated in many other works, such as in the suburban colony of Concrete Island (1974), the ex-patriate holidays complex of Estrella de Mar in Cocaine Nights (1996), as well as that in Las Palmas in “Having a Wonderful Time” (1978) and the business-park of Eden Olympia in Super-Cannes (2000).

Ballard’s interest in the synergy between individuals and architectural form manifests itself in two directions: on the one hand, he depicts the built environment as a mirror, having the potential to reflect the psychological alienation of the character. On the other hand, he explores how it can also affect the mind.[8] The first trope has prompted a great deal of criticism focusing on the influence of Surrealism upon his construction of territory, thus regarding landscape as an externalisation of the psyche and the unconscious.[9] That space can have a psychological impact materialises in Ballard’s recurrent postmodern impersonal tropes. His fiction has been consistently praised as being an apology of the non-place: motorways (Crash and Concrete Island), vast shopping malls (Kingdom Come), empty and abandoned parking lots (Cocaine Nights) follow Marc Augé’s theorisation, in that they are characterised by a lack of temporal, cultural and historical features.[10] Because of the transitional and functional nature of these spaces, the subject is alienated from his experience of emplacement when in these areas and, Augé argues, deprived from a sense of individuality. These topoi symbolise the persisting de-territorialising force that informs Ballard’s writing; they both “displace and evacuate the accretions of ‘anthropological place’”[11] with a constant accent on how they modify the individual’s psychological stability and capability of living in a community.[12]

The critical overtones of Ballard’s constructions have enabled him to transcend the literary sphere: he has become an important “fictional architect” of the modern world. Baudrillard, for instance, refers to Crash (1973) as a basis for explaining his theory of simulacrum in his influential Simulacra and Simulation.[13] Jameson praises Ballard’s alienating constructions as being warning lessons on the risk of being absorbed in the high-tech impersonal space around us.[14] Similarly, in literary criticism, a great deal of scholars have tagged Ballard’s work as constituting a “forum for contemporary debates”,[15] addressing how the subject’s disengagement from others and from himself is related with the architecture surrounding him. His fiction has been said to be technically and generically “homeless”,[16] and his characters to form part of a post-emotional society.[17] It is indisputable that this depiction of the “spaceless-ness” of the contemporary being in a postmodern society is fundamental in Ballard’s spatial universe.

However, while it has been constantly emphasised that Ballard’s creative output is devoted to denouncing how the modern city pushes man towards an existence in a permanent non-place, the intention of this article is to explore the trope of the non-place from a different angle. The central point is to demonstrate that this modern trope of displacement and anonymity has, conversely, also another dimension. The following analysis will demonstrate that the sense of alienation and homelessness identified by most critical approaches to Ballard’s work is also accompanied by an urge to re-territorialise through and within the literary text, an aspect so far ignored in criticism. In order to argue this point, the focus will be relocated from the widely analysed tropes of alienation in the fiction of J.G. Ballard towards the mechanisms of making space for an alienated character.

Two of Ballard’s critically acclaimed short stories, “Motel Architecture” (1978) and “The Enormous Space” (1989) are taken as paradigmatic examples of postmodern adaptations of the spatial structure embedded in Robinson Crusoe. These short stories are also the clearest examples of the transformation of the “non-place” into a utopian world. A hotel in the first case and a suburban house in the second text, these tropes of anonymity and isolation are transformed into a unique one-man land, an insular protective space in which to be.

After an overview of the similarities between the various narrative spaces (juxtaposition interior-interior) in both short stories, the analysis is divided into two themes: the first section concentrates on the foundation of these single and unique spaces. As these microcosms exclude human interaction, the second section explores how the plot dynamics compensates for this lack by means of intrusions and spatial transformations.

2.     Ballardian Bubbles

By staying at home and shutting himself out of the world, the protagonist of “The Enormous Space” cuts all contact with the outside world after divorcing his wife. Once this decision is taken, he experiences how the interior of the house begins to expand. This enlarging microcosm is threatened by various attempts of intrusion (ex-wife, secretary, policeman) but the character manages to keep his space protected from intruders. The protagonist’s intimate relationship with the house culminates in his physical dissolution into it and psychological fusion with it.

This plot very much mirrors the story line from “Motel Architecture”. In this latter text a man retreats from the world into a big solarium, surrounded by technological paraphernalia that enables him to function without moving a single part of his body. The shower sequence from Psycho is replayed on various television screens. As in “The Enormous Space”, the character’s territory and isolation is breached by an intruder. The arrival of the cleaning lady triggers a psychological crisis in the character: he starts sensing the presence of a ghostly opponent who eats his food and shares his private space. Finally, in a moment of epiphany, the protagonist realises that the intruder to his sanctuary space was nothing but “his own consciousness”.[18] Just like the character of “The Enormous Space” he decides to kill himself, to achieve what he regards as a final and absolute symbiosis with the microcosmic space he had created.


Both texts show clear structural and thematic parallelisms that make them complementary and paradigmatic for the study of the relevance of microcosmic non-places in the fiction of Ballard. These parallelisms relate to how both interiors interact with the external domain that contains them.

There are two differentiated frames of action: the urban surroundings and the domestic interior. However, these frames not only provide the setting of the action but also play a central role in the events to happen. To prove that interior spaces are not simply physical frames of the action, it is necessary to recall the notion of “Possible World” in fiction. A “narrative world”, “storyworld” or “fictional world” is a much more complex concept in narrative than just a frame of action or a setting, as the Theory of Possible Worlds in narrative establishes.[19] The key theoretical implication of the Possible World Theory is centred on a redefinition of the text as a mimetic artefact, in so far as it does not imitate reality but provides the constituents and semiotic channels to construct fictional realities. When thinking about the spatiality of the two short stories analysed here, theoretical considerations of this approach are of particular relevance. The sections that follow will demonstrate that interior spaces transcend their immediate function of frames of action to become a storyworld, “a coherent, unified, ontologically full and materially existing geographical entity”.[20] These frames develop into separate worlds, different realities the interaction of which forms the dynamics of the plot. This dynamics will be described in two stages: foundation (section 3) and transformation (section 4).

The literary universe of these two short stories by Ballard displays a very similar structure: it is formed by two distinctive worlds, interior and exterior, sharply contrasted. A fundamental aspect of the plot dynamics, as the section “transformation” will analyse, is extracted from the collision of these two domains.

The first world is a realistic one, in the sense that it corresponds to the codes ruling extratextual consensus reality. In the texts this domain is referred to as “the outside world”, always set in the exterior frame, with constituents that are related to the character, and with operating laws that are very similar to our actual world as readers. The second domain is a more complex one: it hosts the supernatural elements – expansion of physical space and the appearance of the double – and in there most of the action is concentrated. This domain is detached from external reality, has its own rules – some of them not compatible with the first domain (for instance the supernatural element) – and its only human constituent is the protagonist.

Following Lubomír Doležel’s study on narratives concerning a character confined to the isolation of a single space, the interior domains are going to be referred here as a “one-person worlds”,[21] a typology for which the motifs of the island and castaway from Robinson Crusoe, among other works, provide the paradigm. In structural terms, this narrative macrostructure is organised upon the principle of a reduced domain of action for a single character and focalisor: “one and only one person is admitted into the world”.[22] The story is dictated by two events: the shipwreck and the realisation of other human’s presence through the footprint. The first event designates the shift from a multiperson to a one-person world and the second event results in the end of the one-person world.[23]


The same principles are present in “Motel Architecture” and “The Enormous Space”. There is a section dedicated to the foundation of a personal insular retreat from the outside world, which, unlike Defoe’s novel, is voluntary. In “The Enormous Space” the theme of foundation of a personal microcosm is more developed. The reader follows the character’s actions chronologically, and the discourse of exploration around the house predominates, triggering some parallel images of the famous Voyage autour de ma chambre by Xavier de Maistre (1794). Building upon this foundation, the major plot turn is provoked in both stories by the intrusion of another human being into this personal microcosm. It is in “Motel Architecture” where the theme of intrusion predominates. The story is constructed from flashbacks and the discourse of invasion appears right at the beginning. The reader is confronted in medias res with the intruder, as the first line shows: “Pangborn’s suspicion that someone was hiding in the solarium coincided with the arrival of the young repairwoman”.[24] As in Robinson Crusoe, this intrusion results in the end of the one-person world.

Nevertheless, these stories present a significant difference to Defoe’s novel, a divergence that will be crucial to the argument of this article. Transformed by his experience, Robinson Crusoe abandons his island and successfully reintegrates into “ordinary” reality. Ballard’s characters, however, do not seek to readapt to the reality they have left outside. On the contrary, they strive to return to the protection of their one-person world, their microcosm. As a result, after foundation and intrusion, there is a stage that will be conceptualised as “psychastenia” – a final mental and physical fusion with the protective space of the house.

The aforementioned themes are by no means restricted to the two analysed short stories: they are a thematic constant in Ballard’s creative geography. The psychological influence of insularity on a community is core to the plot of the novel Concrete Island (1974) as well as of the short stories “The Terminal Beach” (1964), “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974) and “Having a Wonderful Time” (1978), to name but a few.[25] The imposition of inner experience to external reality is clearly captured in texts such as “The Gioconda of the Twilight Moon” (1964) and “The Man Who Walked Over the Moon” (1985).[26] The dynamics of spatial and identity estrangement through an intruder is also the main thematic constituent of Cocaine Nights (1998), and death as an act of ultimate liberation from external reality in “The Overloaded Man” (1967). However, it is in “The Enormous Space” and “Motel Architecture” that the dynamics of the one-person world best shows the transformation of the non-place into a possible space for the individual.

3.     Foundation of the Microcosm

The symbolic force of the one-person world is anchored in the idea of founding a utopian land from a spatial void. As Jameson indicates in his study on the utopian locus, Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, Thomas More’s Utopia and many other imaginary States registered in the history of literature were framed upon the same model: displacement from the norm because of dissatisfaction with the place of origin, search for geographical insularity, eradication of a particular aspect like social differences or money in this insular space and final achievement of autonomy.[27]

A contemporary reading of this concept is provided in urban sociology by Soja and MacKenzie, who coined the term “privatopia” in the second half of the 20th century to describe a form of urban gated community segregated from public zones, protected by physical, restrictive and exclusive boundaries and, according to Soja arising as a reaction to the dissolution of boundaries in a globalised urban space, triggering that which he denominates the processes of “hyperlocalisation”.[28]

While both utopias and privatopias allude to the same principle of separating what is dystopian by establishing clearly defined limits from it, there are, however, significant differences between both concepts. Literary utopias are very often places with no spatial referent in reality as well as being outside the scope of time (eternal and atemporal). Privatopias, on the contrary, are referential spaces within contemporary urban reality. Moreover, the utopian enclave is very much related to the literary tradition of exotic exploration and travel narratives, one of the best examples being Gulliver’s Travels. Utopias are generally founded on the premise of displacement into a geographically isolated area, often unreachable by land (Thomas More’s island) if even in this earth at all (St. Augustine’s City of God). While the utopian impulse moves from the inside towards the outside, the establishment of a privatopia shows the inverted dynamics. Its goal is attained through introspection: being part the urban or suburban zone, the spatial determination of the privatopia is built on retreating from the exterior towards the interior, and with walls, barriers, cameras and other closures. Such is the case of Ballard’s foundational territories in both stories: the character’s home is part of the urban landscape but its integral and autonomous status is achieved through various mechanisms that demarcate it to that which surrounds it. These mechanisms of foundation undergo three stages in “Motel Architecture” and “The Enormous Space”: delimitation, purification and independence.


Retreat from the external world implies a radical physical enclosure. In order to do so, both protagonists isolate themselves deliberately from other human contact. This insularity from the outside is conveyed through expressions such as “closing the door”, “to secede from”, “to break off”, and “to shut out the world”.[29] This last one is of particular relevance since it denotes that the separation from the exterior is not only physical. It also implies a more profound existential differentiation from the rest: “by closing the front door I intended to secede not only from the society around me […]. I was breaking off all practical connections with the outside world”.[30] In this process, the threshold of the door is very important: the character defines his house as his personal world. Thus, he conceives the threshold as a physical and ontological boundary that will define it against the exterior and will turn it into a space with its own system of values:

[…] I could change the course of my life by a single action. To shut out the world, and solve all my difficulties at a stroke, I had the simplest of weapons – my own front door. I needed only to close it, and decide never to leave my house again.[31]

A similar pattern is present in “Motel Architecture” (“looking back at the twelve years he had spent in the solarium, Pangborn could hardly recall a single face”).[32] The separation is as physical as it is psychological to facilitate what the character refers to as “the construction of a world formed entirely from the materials of his own consciousness”.[33]

The idea of the one-person world draws from the symbolic tropes of the microcosm and the sanctuary. In both short stories, it is the house that which acquires a cosmic symbolism in the Bachelardian sense; a starting-point for our relationship to the universe. It is a space of safety, where “memories have refuges”[34] and gives mankind “proofs or illusions of stability”.[35] It also has a strong affinity with the trope of the island, giving shape to a sanctuary, a “primordial spiritual centre” inviting exploration.[36] Gullón locates the origin of the insular symbol in the magic circle, a popular motif to trace a visible protection of that which is contained.[37] Ballard’s microcosm is a contentious and condensed space. It is not only a “figure of centrality”[38] for the character who believes it to be the only world for him. It is also located at the centre of the narrative universe in that it holds the majority of the action and description. This storyworld is cognitively embraceable by the subject, with clear boundaries to give the impression of being both differentiated from the exterior as well as protected from it. By tracing the limits of the “magic circle” that will protect him, the protagonist determines a safe area to be loaded with emotional projections and mental stages. As Bachelard reminds us in his cartography of the intimate, this is of extreme importance in the construction of the self. In a different context, referring to a reaction to the postmodern form of plural space (polytopia), Westphal also noted the central role this intimate space “where the individual sheds a supplement of personal truth sheltered from the eyes of the world, from the prescriptions of the code”.[39] This state of intimacy will be abruptly transgressed by the arrival of the intruder (section 4).


The validation of these personal microcosms is decisively achieved by the elimination of any other points of view. Whether in first (“The Enormous Space”) or third person singular (“Motel Architecture”), in both stories there is only focalisor, that is one voice who sees and tells what is happening. Once the space of the house is cleared from alien intruders, the character exposes it to a process of depuration, conveyed through images of “erasure”, incineration and elimination (“I have pulled down the heavy curtains”). His previous life is literally burned, including “passport; birth, degree and share certificates” among other “[d]ocuments of a dead past”.[40]

At this stage, the motif of the light as liberator is fundamental in both texts: it provides security and stability.[41] In “Motel Architecture” the private universe of the solarium is a homogeneous “world without shadows with an unvarying light”.[42] In the other story, the house reaches a state of purity by removing curtains and other accessories: “Light has flooded into the rooms, turning every wall and ceiling into a vivid tabula rasa”.[43] The building expands: “Light has flooded into the rooms, turning every wall and ceiling into a vivid tabula rasa”.[44] The figure of the tabula rasa best transmits this desire to abolish who he was before, facilitating a fresh start in a new world. As if the building was physically liberated from the outside, it “can breathe”, “[t]he rooms seem larger and less confined, as if they too have found freedom”.[45] This space is perceived by him as a state of purity, consisting simply of the “essential elements of existence”,[46] these being light, time and space. He even contrasts his situation with that of Crusoe to emphasise this process of purification:

In every way I am marooned, but a reductive Crusoe paring away exactly those elements of bourgeois life which the original Robinson so dutifully reconstituted. Crusoe wished to bring the Croydons of his own day to life again on his island. I want to expel them and find in their place a far richer realm formed from the elements of light, time and space.[47]

In his study on utopian literature, Jameson points out that a perfect world only acquires definition against the horrendous world it excludes. He mentions that the utopian enclave arises as a demarcation of a smaller ground when the outside is presented “as a bewildering chaos, whose forces are indiscernible”.[48] This “demonisation” of the exterior is predominant in both stories. The idea of lethargic exterior world is in sharp contrast with the characters interior’s life and the domain of consensus-reality is viewed as limiting, irrelevant and tedious: “the quiet streets outside, the private estate of hundreds of similar solaria”,[49] “the lack of any response reflects the tranquil air of this London suburb”,[50] “the everlasting provincial melodrama called ordinary life”.[51] This is a constant theme in Ballard’s writing: the retreat towards the interior is a reaction to a surrounding reality that the character cannot grasp.

The trope of the microcosm also inverts the hierarchical constitution of spatial frames: a microcosm is a reduction of the world around it. Durand alludes to it as an inversion of “the archetype of the container and the contained”, by “introducing the big within the small”.[52] In Ballard’s stories, the space of the private microcosm, although in theory embedded in the city, is perceived by the character as larger and more complex than the exterior. In “The Enormous Space” it is even described as being physically bigger than the city that contains it: “already the walls of this once tiny room constitute a universe of their own”.[53] The house goes from being an ordinary suburban construction to being founded as microcosm segregated from the exterior, to finally becoming a self-sufficient system, independent from the external world with its own sources of food and maintenance.


To achieve this, in “The Enormous Space” the character is determined to feed from what the house provides, so when he has exhausted the food, he feeds from the intruders that fall in his traps, such as neighboring pets and visiting human beings: “I would depend on the outside world for nothing. I would eat only whatever food I could find within the house. After that I would rely on time and space to sustain me”.[54] This is what for him is conceived as freedom, from the exterior: “Above all, I am no longer dependent on myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me, […]”.[55] In “Motel Architecture” Pangborn mentions how the solarium supplied all his needs, both physical and psychological. His life is completely sustained by a “life-support system” which involves “exercise devices”, “sexual appliances” and “psychological maintenance devices”.[56] In this final stage, the house – now internally cohesive and an externally independent organism (at least from the character’s perspective) – is definitively established as an active character within the story.

4.     Transformations

As Doležel points out, in the one-person worlds the plot is particularly limited by the reduced physical setting. These worlds are “an artificial and precarious structure, because it suffers from a severe restriction: one and only one person is admitted into the world”.[57] Therefore, although theoretically stimulating, one-person worlds are quite limited in their narrative potential due to their lack of interpersonal conflict to generate plot turns. However, several mechanisms compensate for this lack.

In the analysed Ballard’s stories, one of the functions of the duality space-organism is to perform the role of a character. Through this personification of the house, it and the human entity exercise a performative force upon each other. What happens in the mind of the character has a real impact in the built environment: when the character feels more confident, the house expands (“I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly inscribed within my head and partly within this house”[58]). Conversely, what occurs in and to the house affects the character’s psyche: a cleaning lady profanes his microcosm and Pangborn immediately feels with unease a threatening presence in the solarium.

A further element that enhances the plot dynamics is the collision between the exterior and interior worlds. The integrity and singularity of this utopian organism is challenged several times through various attempts of human interaction. These occur in liminal spaces, thresholds, windows and doors that frame and protect their microcosm. In “Motel Architecture”, there are two intruders: the cleaning lady and the mysterious “other”. The presence of these “viruses” in the system changes the perception of the built environment in three elements: the aseptic environment of the house is invaded by smell; the brightness is interrupted with shadow and its stillness with sound. These three elements express the rupture of the homogeneity reigning over the character’s sanctuary and the unexpected confrontation with the external world provokes a subsequent crisis of identity, which was safely embedded in the interior of the house until then. It is the end of the one-person world.


In “Motel Architecture” smell, sound and noise are described from the start as “half-familiar”[59] and grow increasingly strong and prominent, bringing back “repressed memories”[60] of the past. This process offers parallelisms with Freud’s concept of “the Uncanny” (1919), since the familiar is suddenly estranged from the subject. It is also the expression of something repressed that was “once familiar”, thus fusing the idea of home (Heim), consciousness (bringing it to the surface), familiarity and strangeness. In these short stories, the uncanny constitutes what Anthony Vidler, in his study on the architectural uncanny, captures as: “precisely the contrast between a secure and homely interior and the fearful invasion of an alien presence”.[61] The uncanny is fundamentally also a moment of transformation: it alludes to something that was once secret and hidden but has come to light. From this angle, the stories can be read as an epiphany of self-realisation: “he had become so detached from external reality that even he himself had become a stranger”.[62] Similarly, in “The Enormous Space”, the character loses control of the constantly expanding universe of his home.


From a possible world angle, when the solid and safe space of the house starts bracketing due to the intrusions from the external world, there are two options: either this leads to a so-called multi-person storyworld, recuperating the connection between house and surroundings, self and other, or there has to be a forced return to the confinement of the one-man world, to the previous isolation of the house/character in relation to the external world.

Both characters are determined to keep this personal space of safety. For that purpose, they seek to dissolve into the space they have created, in an act of self-destruction but also of symbiosis with this personal world. It is a shift from the initial personification of space (the house realised as an organism) to the spatialisation of the individual. It is the “psychasthenic experience” that culminates both stories.

From the Greek psykhe (soul, mind) and asthenia (weakness), psychasthenia initially referred to a mental pathology of the mind related to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Most important here, however, is how this term was employed by Roger Caillois in an article entitled “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”.[63] Caillois starts by asserting the importance of mimicry in the natural world. His hypothesis is quite daring: the mimetic behaviour of some species, which includes mechanisms such as chromatic mimicry (colour copy) and homomorphy (adaptation from form to form), is not simply a strategy for survival. It is pathological. This pathology is what he terms as “legendary psychasthenia”, it essentially being “a disturbance in the perception of space”.[64] Simply put, the entity thinks it is the space it occupies. While Caillois is referring to a pathology in certain type of animals, psychasthenia is a notion that can be productively extrapolated to these short stories by Ballard. The term designates a distortion taking place when the subject begins to regard himself not as self but as space. But, as Caillois indicates, a psychasthenic experience is not only a mental disruption; it also involves an actual physical transformation. The subject’s body mimics space; it is transformed into the space it occupies.

In a more contemporary Ballardian context, the concept of psychasthenia has been recently readopted in the field of urban sociology to refer to the postmodern dissolution of the subject in vast extensions of space:

[…] a state in which the space defined by the coordinates of the organism’s own body is confused with represented space. Incapable of demarcating the limits of its own body, lost in the immense sea that circumscribes it, the psychasthenic organism proceeds to abandon its own identity to embrace the space beyond.[65]

As exemplified by this paragraph, in her book Megalopolis (1992), Celeste Olalquiaga uses the term of “psychasthenia” to discuss a form of urban malaise in the experience of the contemporary urban environment. This very clearly equates the process that Ballard’s characters undergo.

From this perspective, both endings could be interpreted as a literary articulation of this modern urban malaise. Built space – the non-place – does not provide the referents to fully grasp the human form for itself, failing to support and contain it. This is symbolically expressed through the body camouflaging itself into the milieu and vanishing.

However, the final discovery, purity and peace captured by the last paragraphs – “finding at last the still centre of the world”,[66] “eager now to merge with the white sky of the screen”[67] – allow for another interpretation. The end can be read as an act of ultimate transcendence from the physical body and the character’s mind towards the space he has created for it. The subject of Ballard’s texts perceives himself, not devoured and not dominated by space, but as being incorporated into the physical space surrounding him. The character shifts from a need to be in a different space to the external reality he has abandoned toward the desire to become the space he has created for himself, in order to reach the desired state of eternal transcendence into a “truer reality”, as both protagonists state.

This recalls the Platonic process of anamnesis: what the characters assumed as their perfect world shatters, leading to the remembrance of an alternative realm. The gradual de-familiarisation of the everyday enables the protagonists to access a higher reality, “which the visual centres of our timid brains have concealed from [them]”.[68] The question is what or where is this “truer” reality? This “more realistic real”, according to the characters, is to be found when they dissolves into their microcosm. The protagonists’ body is obsolete; it ceases to be regarded as a necessary anchor to external reality. They are happily entrapped into this cocoon. They become their one and only reality, “uncluttered by the paraphernalia of conventional life”.[69] As a consequence, the subject is upgraded beyond that polluted, unreliable, and “over-worked hologram called reality”,[70] revealing this typically Ballardian dismissal of the conventionally accepted idea of external reality. From the characters’ perspective within the microcosmic storyworld, this is a long-expected ultimate physical communion with their own utopian foundation. It is the return to the one-person world.

Conclusion: the ‘utopian non-place’

As mentioned in the introduction, Ballard’s fascination with the anonymity of the postmodern built environment makes him a literary architect of the non-place and one of our greatest “postcontemporary dystopians”, as Jameson asserts.[71] However, an aspect that has been disregarded in scholarship dedicated to this author is that his work also expresses an urge to recover a sense of individual spatiality, which is visible in the textual creation of a unique spatial model for a single character and in the relevance of interior microcosmic spaces in Ballard’s fiction.

To analyse the re-territorialising force of Ballard’s one-person worlds, in this article the focus has been displaced from the representation of physical space (which has been the predominant aspect in spatial approaches to his work) to the creation of personal worlds; from the already studied dystopias and other apocalyptic visions towards the construction of the utopian enclave. Ballard’s utopian non-places are characterised by several constituents that follow the structures outlined by Doležel in Robinson Crusoe. These are: two yuxtaposed domains of action (exterior and interior reality), establishment of clear physical and psychological boundaries between the two, elimination of all other potential focalisors, demonisation of the exterior realm, and realisation of interior realm as a self-sufficient microcosm. The plot dynamics is provided by various factors that transform this founded territory, in particular by the figure of the intruder, depicted as a virus in the organism. The theme of intrusion is of great importance to generate spatial estrangement, followed by an epiphanic moment of fusion with that space and reinstatement of the microcosmic individual world.

The two analysed short stories are very much based on the Romantic ideal of physical and psychological fusion with the environment but, in contrast with the Romantic tradition, it is not the natural environment but the artificial non-place what triggers this sublime experience. The final enlightenment does not take place in the remote wilderness but in an ordinary suburban house and motel. What is emphasised is how the subject appropriates this otherwise undifferentiated, anonymous space and constructs and transforms it as his personal and unique enclave.

A new interpretation of Ballard’s fictional cartography arises when the interior non-place is not only regarded as a de-humanised and anonymous setting of the action, but is also embraced as world, more specifically as a one-person world. Within the Ballardian literary universe, where places of and for man’s absence predominate, these utopian non-places indicate that there is still the potential to turn these into single, exclusive enclaves; this form of interior world shapes a territory where it is still possible to make room for one man to be in. In so doing, a different dimension is conferred to the relationship between individual and space: instead of the individual being portrayed as a victim of modern space, it is turned into a ‘space-maker’, the architect of his own environment.



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  4. Ballard, J.G. “Which Way to Inner Space?”. New World Science Fiction, 40 (1962):116-118.
  5. — “The Enormous Space”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two. London: Harper, 2006.
  6. — “The Gioconda of the Twilight Moon”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two. London: Harper, 2006.
  7. — “Having a Wonderful Time”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two. London: Harper, 2006.
  8. High-Rise. London: Harper, 2006.
  9. — “Motel Architecture”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two. London: Harper, 2006.
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[1] Lubomir Doležel, Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998) 37.
[2] J.G. Ballard, “Which Way to Inner Space?”, New World Science Fiction, 40 (1962): 116-118.
[3] Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press) 136.
[4] Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1997). Andrzej Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005).
[5] Ballard himself states this in his most autobiographical works Empire of the Sun (1984), The Kindness of Women (1991) and Miracles of Life (2008). He was born in the Shanghai International Settlement, where ex-patriates lives reproduced the patterns of the British lifestyle. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, he was logged in the Lunghua Internment Camp, another insular space that became central to his work Empire of the Sun (1984). After the war, he moved to England, a country that always remained alien to him and from which he always kept a critical distance.
[6] J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (London: Harper, 2006) 9.
[7] Ibid., 10.
[8] This aspect is particularly present in the short story “The Terminal Beach”, explicitly verbalised by the protagonist as: “this island is a state of mind”. J.G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two. (London: Harper, 2006) 30.
[9] e.g. J. Baxter, J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship (Franham: Ashgate, 2009).
[10] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).
[11] Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1997) 131.
[12] On some occasions, Ballard has reiterated his fascination with the non-place even more strongly: “Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?” (Simon Sellars, “Crash! Voiceover Transcription”, Ballardian, http://www.ballardian.com/crash-voiceover-transcription-1971, 12-07-2015).
[13] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994) 111-123.
[14] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991) 369.
[15] Michel Delville, J.G. Ballard (Plymouth: Northcote House & British Council,1998) 6.
[16] Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls.
[17] Delville, J.G. Ballard, 8.
[18] J.G. Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two (London: Harper, 2006) 516.
[19] Thomas G. Pavel, Fictional Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986); Marie-Laure Ryan, “Space”, in Handbook of Narratology, Peter Hühn et al. (eds.) (Berlin: DeGruyter , 2009) 420-433; Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Lubomir Doležel, Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998).
[20] Ryan, “Space”, 422.
[21] Doležel, Heterocosmica, 37-54.
[22] Ibid., 37.
[23] Ibid., 38.
[24] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 502.
[25] “Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This island is an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?” Ballard, “The Terminal Beach”, 49.
[26] “It was almost as if the barriers between the deepest levels of the nervous system and the external world had been removed, those muffling layers of blood and bone, reflex and convention” J.G. Ballard, “The Gioconda of the Twilight Moon”, in The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two (London: Harper, 2006) 114.
[27] Fredric Jameson. Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007).
[28] Edward W. Soja, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (Oxford; Malden: Blackwell, 2000) 210-217.
[29] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 698.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 506.
[33] Ibid., 507.
[34] Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958) 8.
[35] Ibid., 17.
[36] Chevalier & Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Symbols (London: Penguin, 1994) 544.
[37] Ricardo Gullón, Espacio y novela (Bosch: Barcelona, 1980) 28.
[38] Chevalier & Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary, 529.
[39] Bertrand Westphal, La Géocritique: Réel, fiction, espace (Paris: Minuit, 2007) 75.
[40] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 700-701.
[41] The motif of the blinding light is often an element of personal epiphany in the poetics of Ballard, possibly deriving from his own personal experience. As he expresses in Empire of the Sun (1984), for Ballard the explosion of the atomic bomb was followed by liberation from the camp. Jordi Costa notes that, in the film version of this book, Spielberg devoted special attention to this element when shooting the transformation from the child into an adult. See Jordi Costa et al., J.G. Ballard Autòpsia del nou mil.leni (Barcelona: CCCB   & DCDB, 2008) 22.
[42] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 509.
[43] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 701.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Ibid., 700.
[48] Jameson, Archaeologies, 14.
[49] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 506.
[50] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 697.
[51] Ibid., 704.
[52] Gilbert Durand, Les Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire: introduction à l’archétypologie générale (Paris: Bordas, 1969) 238-243.
[53] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 708.
[54] Ibid., 698.
[55] Ibid., 701.
[56] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 503.
[57] Doležel, Heterocosmica, 37.
[58] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 702.
[59] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 503.
[60] Ibid., 508.
[61] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994) 1.
[62] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 516.
[63] Roger Caillois, “Mimetisme et psychasthenie legendaire”, in Le Mythe et l’homme (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).
[64] Ibid., 111.
[65] Olalquiaga in Soja, Postmetropolis, 151.
[66] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 709.
[67] Ballard, “Motel Architecture”, 516.
[68] Ballard, “The Enormous Space”, 707.
[69] Ibid., 705.
[70] Ibid., 702.
[71] Jameson, Postmodernism, 385.

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