by J.G. Ballard

Published by HarperCollins/Flamingo

392 pages, 2000

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Beyond Cocaine Nights

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


In the 1960s, J.G. Ballard wrote a trio of disaster novels -- The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World -- unlike any other disaster novels written before or since. In these novels, the landscape of the outer world changed to reflect metamorphoses occurring within the psyches of their respective protagonists. Ballard was at the vanguard of a literary movement called the New Wave: a group of science fiction writers who decided to turn SF inside-out by exploring what Ballard himself dubbed "inner space," the landscape of perpetual alienation created by 20th-century Western culture's constantly changing technologies of production, consumption and communication.

In the 70s, Ballard followed with yet another thematic trilogy that continued his exploration of inner space; the impact of urban landscapes on the Western psyche was dissected with clinical precision in Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. However, by the mid-1990s -- with, for example, the publication of two relatively lackluster efforts, The Kindness of Women (a sequel to his autobiographical bestseller, Empire of the Sun) and Rushing to Paradise -- it appeared that the great writer had long since lost his focus and the masterpieces (of which there are many) were things of the past. And then came 1996's Cocaine Nights, an energetic, buoyant mystery that simultaneously struck a new chord and expanded on the Ballardian oeuvre. It was no Crash, but it was a work of unexpected brio and freshness. Unbeknownst to readers at the time, it was also the first in a new thematic set of novels.

Cocaine Nights, it turns out, was a dry run for Super-Cannes. Both feature blasé British expatriates living on the Continent in a planned community for the wealthy. Both embroil the protagonist in a murder mystery that resonates dangerously with his obsessions. In both books, under the sparkling surface of wealth and propriety, there thrives a secret world of crime, corruption, drugs and sex. But in Super-Cannes, Ballard resharpens his inner-space scalpel and pushes the concept farther, resulting in one of the author's best novels. There's even an appearance by one of Ballard's pet images: the empty swimming pool.

Ten thousand years in the future, long after the Côte d'Azur had been abandoned, the first explorers would puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons and stylized fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race of visionary geometers.

Like most of Ballard's work, Super-Cannes is structured like a series of Surrealist paintings. Ballard has always been explicit in acknowledging the profound impact Surrealism has had on him and his work. The plot and story emerge from the connections created by the succession of surreal images.

Super-Cannes is in many ways a millennial synthesis of the surreal Ballardian landscape. The author's lifelong fascinations are all present in this novel. Alienation. Aerial flight as the ultimate dreamlike escape. Messianic megalomaniacal voyeurs substituting foreplay and sex for psychobabble and manipulation. The violent collision of consumer technology and the human body. Psychotherapy as assault and/or recreation. Planned utopias that end up unwittingly amplifying the very elements from which they purport to offer asylum. All these Ballardian obsessions crash into each other in this novel.

At Eden-Olympia, a high-tech business park and planned community located in Super-Cannes, France, the future is being created. Innovative technologies and business strategies seek to regulate the human body to new levels of planned mental and physical health. Visionary therapies secretly foster avant-garde pathologies, heightened levels of alienation, recreational brutality and new permutations of sex, entertainment and corruption. Jane accepts a position at Eden-Olympia -- a position vacated when a colleague and ex-lover reportedly went on a murder spree, killing ten people and then himself. Eden-Olympia is haunted by the violent outburst that still threatens to reveal the lie of its utopian capitalism. Jane brings along her husband Paul, recently wounded and grounded after a disastrous takeoff. Bored and somewhat jealous of the lingering presence of his wife's dead ex-lover, the former aviator investigates the mysterious circumstances of the killing spree.

Paul's failure to fly symbolizes his failure to dream and escape -- a sharp contrast with the orgiastic dream-escapes that result from and in aerial flight in The Unlimited Dream Company. The oversanitized Eden-Olympia, a planned community more alienating by far than Vermillion Sands or Cocaine Nights's Estrella de Mar, causes violence more senseless than Ballard's 1970s urban landscapes ever did. Wilder Penrose, the messianic psychotherapist of Super-Cannes, is prone to the same kind of manipulative delusions and tender brutalities as was Crash's Vaughan. And, surely, corporate capitalism's absolute victory is a disaster even more chilling to contemplate than the rising waters of The Drowned World.

If Ballard were to end his long, prodigious and prolific writing career with Super-Cannes, this latest novel would be a magnificent capstone. However, I'm sure 70-year-old J.G. Ballard isn't done with delivering probing and disturbing diagnostics of our collective pathologies. | January 2001


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.