Kim's Reviews > Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
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Jun 05, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: contemporary
Read in June, 2009

I remember one Saturday afternoon during the winter of 1987/1988 when my friend Chuck and I decided that instead of hitting the mall we would take in a movie. Our choices weren’t great… Rent-a-Cop, Return of the Living Dead Part II , Braddock, Missing in Action Part III. Yeah, so, we opted for Empire of the Sun. I had no real inkling to see it. I really didn’t care.

I remember that the movie had these big gaps of silence. Shots of Christian Bale running around an internment camp, flying a toy bomber, hunting for food. I think that’s mostly what I remember of it. That and Chuck’s reaction. You see, Chuck was the stereotypical ‘skateboarding stoner’, and I’m not joking or being flippant. He relished that label. He’d put Jeff Spicoli to shame, really… Yet, he was completely engrossed in this film. I mean, elbows on knees, leaning forward, shushing ME, kinda engrossed. It was… off-putting to say the least. I found out later, that he went back to see the film another half dozen times. This is a boy that worked at Wendy’s and spent all his money on pot. Go figure.

So, now, 20 some odd years later, I’m reading this book and trying to use my adultified brain to figure out what exactly mesmerized Chuck so.

The story is poignant, made more so when you read that it’s based on JG Ballard’s childhood experiences during WWII. From the get go, I was amazed at the detachment exhibited by Jim regarding death. It was constantly surrounding him and he could shrug it off and continue his make believe games of flying bombers and wounding the enemy. Of course, it’s hard to say who is the enemy while living in Shanghai in 1942.

The book has much more power in that we get to hear Jim’s thoughts and observations, it fills those silences with awe striking clarity and numbing accounts of soldiers stacked along the roadside and how the skin of a sweet potato can taste like the best chocolate imaginable. It lends resonance when he’s confused about his sexual feelings towards a fellow prisoner and roommate, Mrs. Vincent, and the absolute dissolution when he watches fellow prisoners perish from disease and hunger. It’s achingly effective.

There is a scene, towards the end, the war is over, he’s trying to get back to Shanghai to find his parents but he happens across a Japanese pilot that had offered him a mango days before. Jim has always felt a kinship to this pilot, a boy not much older than himself and has fantasies of a camaraderie that, of course, never comes to fruition.

The pilot’s mouth opened in a noiseless grimace. His eyes were fixed in an unfocused way on the hot sky, but a lid quivered as a fly drank from his pupil. One of the bayonet wounds in his back had penetrated the front of his abdomen, and fresh blood leaked from the crotch of his overall. His narrow shoulders stirred against the crushed grass, trying to animate his useless arms. Jim gazed at the young pilot, doing his best to grasp the miracle that had taken place. by touching the Japanese he had brought him live; by prizing his teeth apart he had made a small space in his death and allowed his soul to return.
Jim spread his feet on the damp slope and wiped his hands on his ragged trousers. The flies swarmed around him, stinging his lops, but Jim ignored them. He remembered how he had questioned Mrs. Philips and Mrs. Gilmour about the raising of Lazarus, and how they had insisted that far from being a marvel this was the most ordinary of events. Every day Dr. Ransome had brought people back from the dead by massaging their hearts. Jim looked at his hands, refusing to be overawed by them. He raised his palms to the light, letting the sun warm his skin. For the first time since the start of the war, he felt a surge of hope, If he could raise this dead Japanese pilot he could raise himself and the million of Chinese who had died during the war and were still dying in the fighting for Shanghai, for a booty as illusory as the treasury of the Olympic stadium.

I have to admit that before this, I was clinging to the book, reading it like I was reading a diary of events. Because who am I, a woman who has no inkling what war is like except what I see on CNN, to be able to extract the emotion of this boy from a different time? Then I imagine this 15 year old boy playing Christ, trying to raise the souls of all the people, family, that he had watched perish… wow.

I still wonder what attracted Chuck to this. Was it the ‘little boy lost’ theme? The growing up and discovering who you are amongst a war that was real or imagined? The detachment? I wish I knew where he was so I could ask him… it might shed light on what was behind the ‘skateboarding stoner’ that I thought I knew so well.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I don't like the film very much, but when Christian Bale is reunited with his parents after the war and they barely recognize him... copious tears...

message 2: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Yes... I agree... have you read this, David? I actually liked the film. I liked Hope and Glory more though, if we're looking at that sort of theme...

message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 21, 2009 10:01AM) (new)

No. I've never read any Ballard. Never even heard of him before GR. I guess that, generally speaking, I like to wait until an author is good and dead before I start reading him, so it's safe to read him now. (Cross-Reference: My current Updike readings.)

message 4: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun? The same guy who wrote Crash? I never knew that. I just watched the film recently. Malkovich!

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

You could really sense that Christian Bale was going to be a total asshole, even back then.

message 6: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Fuck that shit, David.. you fucking whore, you leave Christian fucking Bale out of this fucking thread, got it?

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

No. I need the dance mix.

message 9: by Michelle (new)

Michelle You're right. That version is way better.

"It's fucking distracting...Ohhh good!"

(Sorry, Kim.)

message 10: by Kim (last edited May 26, 2009 09:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Fuck you.

Edit#1(Oh, I just realized that that is going to show up on my feed... sorry folks.)

Edit#2 I'm not normally such a potty mouth...something about Christian Bale)

message 11: by Ben (new) - added it

Ben Kim, I'm a bit taken back: I've never seen this side of you before..... but I kind of like it!

message 12: by [deleted user] (last edited May 26, 2009 10:17AM) (new)

Yep. She's a total cougar, Ben. Don't get mauled.

message 13: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Forget fucking Christian Bale, it's David who brings out the fucking potty mouth in me...

message 14: by Jessica (last edited Jun 04, 2009 11:02AM) (new)

Jessica go kim go!

good for you for reading this, I still haven't
want to tho.

message 15: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Why, Chairy? Is there anyother Ballard book that I should read? Lord knows that I'm not reading enough right now. :(

message 16: by Jessica (last edited Jun 04, 2009 11:46AM) (new)

Jessica god, I just realized that I did read it! years ago when I lived in Mexico...circa 1982.
Maybe I should read it again.
I want to read his novel Crash.

message 17: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim I was 11 then... I probably had a crush on boys that played with toy bombers... :)

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)


message 19: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim thanks

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

i remember the movie so much that i think i never read the book because of that

it seems to have been my loss

message 21: by Michael (new)

Michael Johns Maybe you should try watching it ..... /on weed./ I tried to tackle this book in 6th grade and it had a pretty profound effect on me growing up. I've wanted to come back to it as an adult but so much of it is seared into me that I'm almost scared to try.

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