From the deck of my imaginary cruise ship named Summer Reads, The Crystal World was running into a 1,000-ton quartz boulder floating in the sea. I should have known better, as The Drowned World—the second in his quartet of opening salvos all dealing with quasi-naturalistic catastrophes destroying the Earth—is remarkably obtuse, obsessively fascinating, and downright brilliant. The Crystal World—the final work of this loose series—could be that, too. But, this being the first time through, I just don't know.
Anotherwords, I'm baffled. Like most things Ballardian, the characters' gut motivations are allusive. They appear as question marks and leave as exclamation points. Symbolically, the novel is a battlefield of insights and clues to more insights, none of which quite, ah, crystallize enough to analyze upon first contact. For instance, if the theme is transcendence, is it religious as well? Or is the compulsion exhibited merely the Thanatos urge? Is it a re-gargling of Pynchon's Entropy thoughts or Conrad's Heart of Darkness ponderings? As I said, I'm quagmired.
But—what the hell—here goes.
On its simplest terms, plot says a man is circling back to a lost lover. The setting is equatorial Africa where a strange transfigurement is re-shaping the landscape. When finally met, Suzanne appears in an introverted limbo, slowly leaving this life's vitality—her “somber beauty”(FSG, BCE, p.13) being disfigured by a growing leprosy—while yearning for the inanimate crystalline trees and jeweled leaves where the natives “walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads”(p.12). The protagonist, Dr. Edward Sanders, discovers an avalanche of gemstones, crystallized parapets closing over the trees and vegetation, and prismatic, jeweled appendages on every thing living in its path which is traveling at about 100 feet a day. At first, he naturally sees this as blight; later he understands its bounty as “that place of rainbows [where] nothing is distinguished from anything else”(p161).
You see, Sanders is deeply conflicted by the opposing forces of his core principles. In fact, throughout the novel, antithetical competition is everywhere. Even characters, finding themselves in parallel and cross-over situations, are looking at themselves in counter roles. Of Sanders' two lovers, Suzanne is mystical whereas Louise is a pragmatic journalist; the madman Ventress acts as Sanders' doppelganger who is also searching for his lover among the crystal forest, yet he fights frantically for her while Sanders lets Suzanne drift away; the mine owner Thorensen and Suzanne's husband play similar roles but on diametrically different planes of understanding. Animate, inanimate; appearance, reality; lust, fury; darkness and light—all combine by their dissimilarities to form a transcendent whole. The Crystal Forest becomes an anthem for metamorphosis in the evolutionary path of humanity's future.
Or, in Sanders' final epistle:
That's the best I can do on short notice. This is a bad, bad Summer Read. You have to think too hard, too often, too deeply.