1.13.2013

Getting Attuned to the Surreality of J.G. Ballard's "Prima Belladonna"



I'm proceeding slowly through The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard in 2013, and hope to have at least something to share on each story eventually.  There's potential spoilers below.  First story up for study is  "Prima Belladonna" from 1956, a story originally collected in Vermillion Sands.

"Prima Belladonna" is told by an unnamed narrator as a reminiscence.  A recollection of a long-ago, idealized time known in his culture's history as "The Recess," that "world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer..." that lasted for a decade.  People worked only a few hours per day during this era of ennui, assuming our unnamed leading man is any indicator of the cultural norm, spending their hours not in labor but instead on balconies with beer, playing i-Go, a game described as "decelerated chess," as if chess (for the lay person, not a pro) wasn't slow enough already.

Ballard's got that wry wit going on repeatedly; I really enjoy his humor; the story is constant creative smarts and clever fun.  Ballard could also be mocking a particular strata in society with this sluggish setting known as "The Recess".  And that it lasted for ten years, much as recess in school -- or in the courts -- lasts oftentimes for ten minutes, points to parody.  There may also be some possible "i-Go"/Iago wordplay connotations, but I'm not going to work that hard right now to highlight them.

The title is perfect for the content of this story.  There's a diva, Jane Ciracylides, a "specialty singer" who may be a "mutant," performing in the casino lounge at Vermillion Sands.  She possesses "insect eyes" and "patina-golden skin," a body of breathtaking brilliant light -- "a walking galaxy of light" -- to die for.  She is the "Prima Belladonna" of the story title, though the title refers specifically to the "Bayreuth Festival Prima Belladonna," an exotic spider used in the pollination of a rare, highly prized, plant.

Before our leading man meets Jane Ciracylides (his business is across the way from Vermillion Sands), we meet him working in his music shop.  He doesn't sell ordinary instruments from any reality of ours.  Of course he doesn't.  Not in J.G. Ballard's reality, his tweaked surreality.  So there's no tubas or flutes; no trombones; no pianos.  Instead, he sells plants: "Choro-flora".  Stuff like "soprano mimosas, azalea trios" or "mixed coloratura herbaceous from the Santiago Garden Choir".  Each plant's "audio" can be switched on, like a radio or an i-Pod, so customers can hear what the plant sounds like prior to purchase.  You wouldn't download a song without sampling it first, would you?

The music store's -- and our story's -- centerpiece, is the "Khan-Arachnid orchid".  A rare specimen capable of twenty-four octaves, and invaluable also for keeping the music shop, a veritable greenhouse of choro-flora, in tune.  Plants, remember, like most musicians and especially prima donna opera singers, can be very temperamental at times, capable of "twelve-tone emotional storms,"and need ameliorative assistance of SO₂ or a "fluoraldehyde flush" to bring them back from potentially lethal precipices of "audio-vegetative armageddon".

Our narrator and Jane Ciracylides find an immediate attraction, that first afternoon she strolls into his store, eyeing his merchandise.  She invites him to her concert that evening, and soon they're dating, and eventually move in together.  But the relationship is doomed.  For sweet Jane cheats at more than just i-Go.  In retrospect, considering that explicit and shocking scene of what I suppose can best be called "cross pollination," witnessed by the dumbfounded narrator when he came home early to his music shop -- the story's climax you could say -- isn't it obvious that Jane Ciracylides from the time they first met in the store, was after something more than merely him?

~~~~~

Some favorite ideas not mentioned above from the story:

~ "Perhaps I'd listened to too many flowers".
~ Tchaikovsky section in store, popular with tourists.
~ The Khan-Arachnid orchid going "all ultra sonic," meaning the music shop owner would soon be getting complaints from all the dog owners in the area.
~ The concept that a plant's music could attract predators, whether "sonic, Emperor scorpions" or prima belladonnas with insect eyes.

~~~~~

I don't know offhand if studies of the positive effect of classical music on plants had been conducted by 1956 (just haven't bothered to google it) but if they had, I wonder if the seed of the idea for "Prima Belladonna" came to Ballard as a means of turning such a study upside down, and his conceptualizing of what the negative effects of classical plants on human(oid)s might be.  Conjecture.

And how prescient was Ballard's i-Go game, suggestive just in its very name, of our present day communicative and entertainment gadgets most of us now own and take for granted.

For more, here's A Jungian Take on Vermillion Sands, of which "Prima Belladonna" plays an important part.

3 comments:

Séamus Duggan said...

Long time since I read this, but it remains embedded somewhere. He wrote a lot of great short stories.

excalibunny said...

Just read this short story. Great write up.

Jack Parsons said...

Has anybody done a Vermillion Sands video game?