Microdoses of Madness
CLARK Acclaims the sinister
corporate creation of JG Ballard
with his book, Super-Cannes
392pp, Flamingo, £16.99
It is tempting to see Ballard
as the seer of Shepperton, the self-styled suburbanite who
carves out grim dystopias of technology, corruption and
perversion from the safety of the sofa. Or indeed as the
child internee of Empire of the Sun, who transforms every
social space into a prison in which savagery is the necessary
corollary to survival. Neither of these descriptions is
particularly untrue, but in Super-Cannes - in many ways
a companion piece to Ballard's previous novel, Cocaine Nights
- we might identify the author of other kinds of fiction,
the detective novel, the tender travelogue and the supremely
subtle parody also jostling for attention.
The hero of Super-Cannes is a typically Ballardesque character,
the ex-RAF pilot who finds himself cut asunder from modern
life and stands on the sidelines patiently attempting to
unravel its message and find the key to his own alienation.
But the novel also has a powerful anti-hero, the sick psychiatrist
Wilder Penrose, whose description on the first page as an
"amiable Prospero" fits his creator equally well.
Penrose is the Lord of Misrule who presides over his territory
with unnerving sang-froid, winding up his charges then fondly
regarding the havoc they create.
Penrose's "ideas laboratory for the new millennium"
is the grandly named Eden-Olympia, a monstrously hi-tech
business park nestling in the hills above the French Riviera
which plays home to the new elites. Here, absorption in
work has eclipsed the need for play, and the ornamental
ponds, sports centres and cafes that landscape the complex
stand deserted as the executives of Siemens, Mitsui and
Unilever move silently from glass-fronted office buildings
to sleek chauffeur-driven cars. Social life, in its broadest
sense, has been dispensed with, and there is no place among
the smooth planes and surfaces for the church, the council
house or the police station. Monitored by surveillance cameras
and guarded by an under-employed security force, the community
polices itself; all that matters is the quiet accretion
of wealth and the dedicated pursuit of commerce.
Into this capitalist paradise glides an antique Jaguar bearing
Paul Sinclair - an aviation buff deprived of his pilot's
licence and the use of a knee following a bungled take-off
- and his wife Jane, a youthful paediatrician whose bolshieness
and taste for the occasional recreational drug marks her
out from the beginning as a character likely to end up in
trouble. Indeed, their arrival - ushered in by a beaming
Penrose - is already tainted; Jane is to replace David Greenwood,
a clinician who some months earlier had rampaged through
the cool green spaces and mirrored offices of Eden-Olympia,
taken a rifle to 10 people and then slaughtered himself.
Becalmed by the curse of enforced leisure - "a new
kind of social deprivation" - and intrigued by the
teasingly casual response of the business park's senior
personnel, Paul sniffs conspiracy and turns sleuth.
The remainder of the novel is vintage Ballard, a gripping
blend of stylised thriller and fantastic imaginings rendered
in deceptively bland, unruffled prose. One of its virtues
lies simply in its compulsive readability; as the story
unfolds, the reader is engaged at the level of pure plot,
infected by Sinclair's quest to penetrate the mystery behind
Greenwood's "dance of death". Yet Ballard's flair
for the surreal and the sinister dictates that neither Sinclair
nor the reader will remain untouched by the world they behold.
For Sinclair, the process of collusion with the criminality
that underlies life at Eden-Olympia begins early, with a
cheery piece of vandalism on Penrose's car and a sexual
fillip after his wife shoplifts a copy of Paris-Match.
"It's irritating to be reminded of the contingent world",
remarks Penrose as he outlines his plans for the "intelligent
city" he is creating. At first sight, that intelligence
takes the form of advanced health screening, up-to-the-minute
gadgetry and the replacement of the civic by the commercial.
But as the novel progresses, his vision is seen to be far
more concerned with the accommodation and encouragement
of baser instincts. "A controlled psychopathy is a
way of resocialising people and tribalising them into mutually
supportive groups," he explains in defence of the violent
"special actions" carried out by the bowling club.
"The consumer society hungers for the deviant and unexpected
- psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light
our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries
of the world."
All the best madmen make a certain kind of sense, and Penrose's
development of homeopathic violence - "microdoses of
madness like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve
tonic" - holds Eden-Olympia in a "state of undeclared
war", its occupants beguiled into an inhuman and unnatural
state of hyper-effectiveness. Ballard's grotesqueries also
hold the reader in their sway, thrown into relief by the
lovingly evoked ambience of the old Riviera and a vanished
cultural life hinted at by references to Saint-Exupéry
and Graham Greene. That world is gone, replaced by identikit
versions of Silicon Valley reproducing themselves across
the globe, self-contained communities free to create their
own morality. It is a form of madness that only madness
can combat, and as Paul Sinclair sinks further into his
own "dream of death", the reader can only just
cling on to the hope that he will wake up.
Source: The Guardian