The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard
Originally published in 1966 and reissued this summer by Picador, J.G. Ballard’s fourth novel The Crystal World is a metaphysical, conceptual adventure through the jungles of Africa. Edward Sanders, a doctor specializing in leprosy, has just arrived in the port city of Matarre in search of his former colleague and lover, Suzanne. A peculiar disturbance permeates the atmosphere of Port Matarre; what appears to be a trick of light and shadows is inescapable throughout town. “Everything seems dark,” explains Louise, another recent arrival who is in town to write about the mysterious circumstances. “But then you look at the forest and see the stars burning in the leaves.” A Lovecraftian horror radiates from the depths of the jungle, and it appears to be changing whatever lies in its path.
The Crystal World is an episodic tale of mystery and imagination that reads like a phantasmagoric Tintin adventure for adults. Ballard barrels readers through dockside gunfights and jungle explorations, all in search of the source of the anomaly slowly spreading throughout town. It’s a delightful (if somewhat outdated) thrill, perfect for a graphic novel or Indiana Jones-style film adaptation.
Or it would be, if not for the crystals. Ballard reveals early in the novel that the force emitting from the jungle is vitrifying everything it reaches. Once touched, man and animal transform uncontrollably into crystalline forms and fuse with the bejeweled earth and flora. The force is a beautiful poison, infecting all within range. If The Crystal World were to be adapted into a comic it would need to be printed in hologram; if it were a film, it would need glasses far more complicated that the current 3D.
Although the novel shimmers with vintage cinematic style, Ballard has packed The Crystal World so full of ideas that exploring its many theoretical avenues is an adventure in itself. Speaking with Sanders, one character connects the crystal force with the mutations of leprosy. “It seems to me that the business here and your own speciality are very similar. In a way, one is the dark side of the other.” The crystals, he explains, are “closer to a cancer than anything else…. it’s as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.” Sanders’ visit to Port Matarre coincides with the spring equinox, further alluding to themes of temporal divisions and lunar light and darkness. Expanding on this, each character is developed as a conceptual twin of another in the novel, further refracting the story through a compositional prism. Also buried among these wild ideas are mentions of religion and transubstantiation, as well as a quiet, colonialist thread, with allusions to the Mont Royal mine and the possibility that the happenings might be related to some kind of ecological exploitation. Although The Crystal World’s magic is remarkably visual, its abstract ideas manage to be even further transportive.
In a raving, rhapsodic leap, Ballard attempts to explain the crystal anomaly as a conflict between space and time. “It is, perhaps, our unique achievement as lords of this creation to have brought about the separation of time and space,” Sanders writes to a colleague. “To resolve them again is the greatest aim of natural science.” Sanders begins to see the disease of leprosy as a “semi-animate, crystalline existence, half-in and half-out of our own time-stream,” and understands the crystallizing world to be a similar force attempting to reform the fissure that science has split open. Sanders expounds further in a passage that exposes the thin line between science and utter lunacy:
“Just as a super-saturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the super-saturation of matter in our continuum leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix. As more and more time ‘leaks’ away, the process of super-saturation continues, the original atoms and molecules producing spatial replicas of themselves, substance without mass, in an attempt to increase their foot-hold upon existence.”
Whether The Crystal World checks out on a cellular level is beside the point — Ballard has built a structure with enough maddening angles to dazzle his readers. Perhaps the novel is indeed supposed to be about “the annihilation of time,” as Robert Macfarlane explains in his introduction, but those readers who don’t fully grasp its metaphysical angles will not be left wanting. The Crystal World is a strange jewel, a novel equally fit for marveling as it is for the microscope.