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Let’s get one thing straight from the start: J.G. Ballard does not have a fetish for cars. This may come as something of a revelation to readers who know the British writer only for Crash—the 1973 novel that sexualized orthopedic aids and turned the local junkyard into a mammoth erogenous zone. Ballard does own an auto, mind you, but it’s a Ford Granada. And what kind of self-respecting fetishist would own a Ford Granada? Nobody’s that perverted.
Ballard—whose dystopic vision has won him frequent comparisons to the late William S. Burroughs, although stylistically he has more in common with Don DeLillo—has been sending us his hyperlucid dispatches from that mental intersection where sex, technology, and violence converge since the early ’60s. Detached and oddly obsessive, his work has caused some readers to confuse the reporter with his beat. “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” was one editor’s hysterical diagnosis of Ballard and Crash.
But Ballard may well be the sanest man alive. He’s not a patient but a therapist—when he describes his work as a “fiction of analysis” he’s speaking in the psychological sense—the Krafft-Ebing of postmodern psychopathy. If all his novels have a disconcerting sameness—a remarkable achievement when one considers that his settings have ranged from tropical islands to futuristic high-rises to the Sahara to, in his most recent books, the French Riviera—it’s because his concerns haven’t varied one iota over the past almost 40 years. Like Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness is a sort of photographic negative of Ballard’s newest novel, Super-Cannes, Ballard is out to erase the imaginary distinction between civilization and savagery. In his view, our culture’s entertainment and technological advancements have not only failed to allay modern man’s latent savagery, they’ve actually helped to feed it. In a mid-’90s interview, Ballard expressed his concern with an “entertainment culture that thrived on violence and sensation and a rootless urban and suburban population with nothing to do other than play with their own psychopathic fantasies.” In such a world, “[m]odern technology, whether in the form of a motor car or a motorway or a high rise building, was empowering peoples’ worst natures.”
Super-Cannes has many similarities to Ballard’s previous novel, 1996’s Cocaine Nights. Both could be dubbed “mysteries of ideas” insofar as they follow the conventions of the traditional mystery novel but are really more interested in tracing the implications of a particular philosophical trend. And both are set in antiseptic high-security communities—the former a multinational business park, the latter an exclusive gated community—where crime has ostensibly been rendered obsolete.
Eden-Olympia—the high-tech business park of Super-Cannes—is a veritable Zurich on the Riviera. There is no violent crime, no littering, even: “There are no pine cones to trip you, no bird shit on your car. At Eden-Olympia even nature knows her place.” This sterile atmosphere is the breeding ground for a new species of superexecutive—and ripe for a particularly malevolent form of social engineering.
Critics have commented on the more conventional narrative structures—and warmer characterizations—of the so-called Seer of Shepperton’s past two works. But despite the signs of uxoriousness displayed by Ballard’s newest protagonist—a surprising sign, given that your typical Ballard character is clinically detached and about as warm-blooded as an asp—no one but a first-timer would ever mistake Eden-Olympia for any place but another colonial outpost in Ballard’s far-flung empire of the sun. Super-Cannes is set in Ballard’s familiar mirror world of violent sex and sexy violence. All of Ballard’s usual props—licit and illicit pharmaceuticals, automobile-erotic sex, strange prosthetics, empty swimming pools, and desolate car parks—are in place.
As the book opens, Eden-Olympia’s resident physician, presumably driven mad by overwork, has gone on an inexplicable killing spree, shooting 10 colleagues before turning his gun on himself. In his place, Eden-Olympia hires Londoner Dr. Jane Sinclair, whose pilot husband, David, is recovering from an aviation accident. Left to his own devices, the idle David Sinclair spends his long recuperation hobbling about the business park’s ornamental lakes—an action considered so eccentric that he risks being shot by overzealous security personnel—and playing amateur detective. Nothing that he knows about his wife’s predecessor—an idealistic young physician who until his death worked with Médecins Sans Frontières and established a free clinic for orphaned children—leads Sinclair to believe that this man was capable of carrying out the cold-blooded execution of 10 people.
Both husband and wife eventually fall under the seductive sway of one Dr. Penrose. Responsible for the psychiatric health of the employees of Eden-Olympia, Penrose is faced with a population of executives who work hard but have lost all capacity to play. These hard cases are resistant even to the lures of extramarital sex—as the narrator puts it, “Sex, at the business park, was something one watched on the adult film channels”—and dangerous drugs. And Penrose has come up with a treatment.
Penrose’s mantra—”In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom”—makes a kind of Alice in Wonderland sense. Mirrors—and the Alice books themselves—figure prominently in Super-Cannes. (At one point the narrator theorizes that, had Alice herself been a citizen of Eden-Olympia, she “would have grown up quickly and married an elderly German banker, then become a recluse in a mansion high above Super-Cannes, with a fading facelift and a phobia about reflective surfaces.” And people say Ballard isn’t funny.) By coming to Eden-Olympia, the Sinclairs have entered a world where sanity and insanity stare at one another through the looking glass.
Penrose predicts that “[t]he Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won’t walk out of the desert. They’ll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.” In the end, Penrose, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is a visionary unhinged by his vision; he has stared into the abyss until—as Nietzsche warned—it stared back. As his attempt to create a new society characterized by “real freedom, the freedom from morality” threatens to spiral out of control, his desire for a confidant—David Sinclair—increases. As David notes, “[Penrose] needed me to understand him.”
Germaine Greer has described Ballard as “a great writer who hasn’t written a great novel,” and I suspect her reservations have something to do with his characterizations, which tend to be flat and one-dimensional. Ballard’s protagonists tend to be ciphers, automated thinking machines who wander through their creator’s empty car parks and camera-patrolled gated compounds speaking only in well-turned epigrams. There is always the whiff of the clinic about a Ballard novel, and not just because the sentences—Ballard may well be the best living English prose stylist we have—seem to have been sliced with a scalpel.
Ultimately, it’s the dichotomy between his crystalline prose and his black visions that keeps me coming back to Ballard’s books. He writes like a dream, but his novels are guided tours of what Henry Miller called the air-conditioned nightmare. Describing a Cannes premiere, Ballard notes that the arriving actors seem ill at ease, “like celebrity criminals ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palais, a full-scale cultural Nuremburg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit.” Ballard’s is a surreal vision, captured in similes that cut like Buñuel’s razor blade. Like Lewis Carroll, he turns the world topsy-turvy, and we’re better for it. CP