There are many motifs cut through the prose of flying, aviation and birds. And also of death denial. It reminds me of the phantasmagoric chilling, yet heart stirring movie Jacobs Ladder starring Tim Robbins. Ballard was not religious despite being an Anglican choir boy in Shanghai as written and made celluloid in his memoir Empire of the Sun. One wonders if he picked up by osmosis some Oriental spiritual thought? Or had discussions about hermetic gnosis with his good friend Michael Moorcock?
To misquote Blake via a famous cinematic biopunk android.
“Fiery the angels fell, deep thunder rolled around their shores, burning with the fires of Orc.”
Our man who falls to earth or 1970’s Surrey civic limbo is named Blake. This titular anti hero is a classic unreliable narrator. The opening goldbricker gambit is of a young man who is a pearl amongst swine and is assuredly waiting for his day to shine. And how bright shall he shine. He crashes a flaming, purloined, light aircraft into the river Thames. The splash down is right next to the commuter town of Shepperton, famed for its massive film studio complex. Blake manages to survive the crash and swims ashore exhausted and delirious. He receives a revelation of an impending doom that will happen in this small town. This may be his own demise in his head. He was fleeing a murderous pseudosexual yet self perplexing assault on his current girlfriend. We are never sure if the plane ride was meant as a suicide mission or a forlorn escape. Blake comes to and meets the main characters in the novel. We begin to get hints that our hero may be dead or in a coma. He may even be alive and suffering from an acute and powerful psychotic episode. Or maybe he really is a fallen angel, we are never quite sure. He regains consciousness in an archaeological dig surrounded by curious and horrified onlookers.
The other characters appear to be manifestations of Blake’s subconscious. Or remnants from his dying brains memory bank. A prissy mother (Miriams mother) and religious father (Rev Wingate) as authority figures. Three physically disabled children who may symbolize faults in Blake’s psyche. A younger brother/rival nemesis and most significantly an attractive young woman Doctor who becomes his lover and also seemingly has latent sisterly aspects. As the novel progresses Blake begins to realise he is trapped in a Shepperton that is akin to the Akbarian Barzakh of Sufism and also the Mandaean Martata. When he tries to escape the horizon runs away from him, as does the rivers other shore. At one point he is stuck in a Dante’s inferno like traffic jam on a bridge. He is trapped in a psychic event horizon. The Chinvat bridge of Iranian eschatology. Reminiscent of being caught in the loop of Hobbs End in John Carpenters excellent film In The Mouth of Madness. Blake decides that he can only escape by retreating back into and engaging his meat machine sensorium and despite having growing gnosis and messianic powers desires only the self aggrandizing gratification of the lustily perverse, dark and dank. He wants to fuck the whole town. Not save them. An inverted alchemy wherein he transmutes spirit back into matter.
As his actual body perhaps decays in it’s watery grave, the town also becomes fruity and fecund. Blake’s not only feels horny he wants to absorb every person in the town like an insatiable energy vampire. He begins to fantasize about the power of flight. And the town soon turns into an exotic aviary. Blake’s Garuda spirit bird wants to show the town how majestic and powerful he is. Townsfolk join him and change into various bird species and other fauna. In shamanic ecstasy he becomes a rutting stag and also a giant whale cavorting in the river. Shepperton follows suit and becomes a free zoo, the Thames a shimmering aquarium. The streets festooned with tropicalismo. Blake wanders the town like a bull elephant in musht. He still craves and desperately wants to escape back to London. But he can’t escape, the more he indulges the zombie meat machine the tighter the trap is set. In a final attempt to sexually absorb the whole of Shepperton Blake engages in a bizzaro chemical marriage merging with his sister/lover syzygy Miriam St Cloud. They become one and fly into the firmament.
Blake is gunned down by his younger male rival (named Stark) and he falls once more. Blake lives though Miriam dies and is laid to rest in the deconsecrated church. The wounded Blake is ritually abused by Stark and other ghostly suburbanites, pushed around like a broken albatross in a shopping trolley. They try to sacrifice him in a classic Ballardian way by throwing Blake off of a multi story carpark. But in Blake’s Bardo there is no death upon death.
Alone and despondent Blake finally seems to realise he is a being of hermetic spirit and forgives Stark. He alters matter and embraces spirit. He hunts his former rival down and absorbs him releasing Stark from his limbo. He retrieves then wrestles with his fish eaten corpse from the plane wreckage and painfully absorbs the slimy skeletal remains. Gnostic satori reached now in finality, Blake casts off death by embracing it and let’s go. Now as a spectral Bodhisattva the literally pulsing glowing Blake dressed in his flying suit seeks to release all souls from this very English Martata. He sends their souls upwards into the world of light. Shepperton has gone to seed now, lit by a sickly setting sun, diseased and decaying, surrounded by police helicopters swarming like a halo of flies. In a final gesture of mystic kindness, Blake resurrects Lazarus like the body of beautiful Miriam, they rekindle their affection and he sends her into flight to the pleroma. At her bidding he also sends the sleeping dead in the church yard into the light. Only the encircling helicopters, and the conference of the birds remain. The once fallen angel goes to the spot where the father like authority figure of the clergyman had dug up the giant skeleton with wings and lays himself down. Blake happily slumbers awaiting the day when his Daena syzygy Miriam will return and inturn release him in the final Kalki days when the dead and the living, matter and spirit, light and dark merge. He can finally walk over the bridge to the far shore entering 9th Heaven, Valhalla, Avalon, Nirvana or Frashokeriti of at the end of time. What ever you think best…