‘The Terminal Beach’ by JG Ballard

‘The Terminal Beach’ marks a watershed in Ballard’s writing. It’s the first story he wrote in which the events it describes are separated out and then studied from various angles in what he described as a “very abstract, almost cubist way”. This style, in which fiction becomes a kind of report on itself, proved fruitful for him throughout the late-1960s, reaching its apogee in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). In the story, Traven, who is also the protagonist of that later work, finds himself on the deserted Pacific atoll of Eniwetok, an H-bomb test site. It is a landscape of manmade blocks – a “minimal concrete city” – designed to help measure the force of the explosion, an airstrip, submarine pens, and dozens of B-29 bombers lying across one another “like dead reptile birds”.

Traven’s wife and son are dead, and he has come to Eniwetok to conduct some kind of irrational hunt for them. ‘“This island is a state of mind’”, he is told at one point, which gets to the heart of things: “if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to events in his own psyche”, Traven thinks, “20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places”. So Eniwetok is an extension or projection of Traven, and in this way for me it becomes paired with the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, the setting of Ernest Hemingway’s story about a fishing trip, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ (1925), in which Nick Adams’s physical journey through the landscape also becomes a psychic one, the enactment of his struggle to come to terms with his experiences in the First World War.

This idea of the space of the story being the physical expression of a mental state is integral to a significant number of short stories, or perhaps it’s more true to say that I read a significant number of short stories in this way. Grace Paley said that every story consists of “two events or two characters…bumping against each other”, and in his ‘Theses on the Short Story’, Ricardo Piglia writes, “a short story always tells two stories… the point where they intersect are the foundations of the story’s construction”. And what is the subconscious if not a constant second story, set to a lesser or greater extent askew from consensus reality? I like Ballard’s stories for the directness with which they use this doubleness as their material. One almost always feels, reading him, that the setting and the events are projections of a protagonist’s inner life – which is perhaps why those protagonists are themselves relatively blank: all their inside is thrown outside.

Traven begins spending more and more time within the network of concrete blocks scattered across the island. The more lost he gets, the calmer he feels. “Somewhere in the centre of the maze”, Ballard writes, “he sat with his back against one of the concrete flanks, his eyes raised to the sun. Around him the lines of cubes formed the horizon of his world. At times they would appear to advance towards him, looming over him like cliffs, the intervals between them narrowing so that they were little more than an arm’s length apart, a labyrinth of corridors running between them”. That “advance towards him” links ‘The Terminal Beach’ with Kipling’s ‘The Gardener’ (also 1925, like the Hemingway), in which Helen Turrell travels to Hagenzeele to visit the grave of her nephew. Climbing the steps to the cemetery, she meets “the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her”.

The moment is one of horror. Helen, like Traven, is searching for a dead loved one. She, like him, is perhaps mad with grief: she has a vision of Jesus, while Traven sees his wife and child across a lake, “beckoning to him” (a step too far, probably, to think here of the first sighting of Miss Jessel beside the lake in The Turn of the Screw, but you can’t deny the mind its associations, least of all when reading Ballard). Like Nick Adams, who puts off fishing the swamp, the locations in which these characters are situated reflect and express their internal condition. Traven’s bombed and deserted island, on which tall palms reach “into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet”, is a landscape encoded with trauma and grief.

From The Terminal Beach, Gollancz 1964