Vaguely on the Run

Sam Gilpin

  • Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
    Flamingo, 392 pp, £16.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 00 225847 1

‘Here, at the newly named Antibes-les-Pins, will arise the first “intelligent city” of the Riviera,’ J.G. Ballard wrote in ‘Under the Voyeur’s Gaze’, an essay that appears in A User’s Guide to the Millennium, a collection of his journalism. He went on:

The ten thousand inhabitants in their high-tech apartments and offices will serve as an ‘ideas laboratory’ for the cities of the future, where ‘technology will be placed at the service of conviviality’. Fibre optic cables and telemetric networks will transmit databanks and information services to each apartment, along with the most advanced fire, safety and security measures. To cap it all, in case the physical and mental strain of actually living in this electronic paradise proves too much, there will be individual medical tele-surveillance in direct contact with the nearest hospital.

The words in quotes presumably come from the publicity brochure for Antibes-les-Pins, but you can almost hear the glee in Ballard’s dry, clipped prose as he picks out phrases which might have originated in one of his own technological fantasies – the ‘intelligent city’ and the ‘ideas laboratory’ appear again in Super-Cannes. Perhaps even more Ballardian is the promise of psychiatric invigilation, which also finds a place in his latest novel.

The area surrounding Cannes began to be transformed into the Silicon Valley of southern Europe in 1970, when work started on the Sophia-Antipolis science park. The park now contains over a thousand companies employing more than twenty thousand people. In Côte d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera (1992), Mary Blume describes the characteristics of the new business community: ‘English is the lingua franca. An English-language radio station and a local interest magazine advertise videocassette rentals, gourmet caterers, a hypnotherapist and a sexologist, weight-loss programmes, pool cleaners, Tupperware parties, softball games. “Beat boredom with satellite TV,” one ad suggests.’ The fictional ‘Eden-Olympia’ of Super-Cannes is an exclusive business park; the ‘newest of the new France’, it is home to only the largest and richest multinational companies (Siemens, Unilever, Elf-Aquitaine). It has its own television station and a police force which is there to observe rather than to intervene, relying on thousands of video cameras to prevent crime. There are leisure facilities on-site, but these are as much for show as the ornamental pathways which end in cul-de-sacs once they are out of sight of the roads. The executives who work there seem to have no time for leisure and no need for it. Eden-Olympia is a place more to be looked at than lived in. Ballard notes in the foreword that Eden-Olympia was inspired by Sophia-Antipolis. Super-Cannes itself, he adds, is a ‘luxury enclave’ above the town, but the term could be appropriated and used to refer to the ‘whole terrain of science parks and autoroutes’.

Paul Sinclair, the novel’s narrator, is a pilot and aviation enthusiast who is recuperating from a plane crash. He arrives at the business park with Jane, the much younger wife he met and married while being treated for his injuries. Jane has taken a medical post at Eden-Olympia after her predecessor committed suicide. Dr Greenwood – her former friend and lover – went on the rampage with a rifle, killing ten people, most of whom were senior figures in the park hierarchy. A garden called Eden, or even Eden-Olympia, would hardly be complete without snakes.

Paul Sinclair had met Dr Greenwood only once, a week before his wedding. The young man had reminded Sinclair of an ‘enthusiastic Baptist missionary’; he had used his spare time at Eden-Olympia to set up a refuge for orphaned children. While Jane works increasingly long hours at the business park health centre Paul finds himself brooding on the violent events that drew the couple to the South of France. His preoccupation is not surprising – the couple are living in Greenwood’s old villa. Following hints and suggestions from others in Eden-Olympia, Sinclair’s interest evolves into an amateur investigation. Initially, Sinclair believes that the doctor didn’t commit the murders, but his detective work reveals that even if the official version of events is distorted, Greenwood was certainly responsible for seven of them. The novel is more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

The plot and preoccupations of Cocaine Nights, Ballard’s previous novel (1996), are remarkably similar to those of Super-Cannes, so similar that the two books could be thought of as companion volumes. (This seems to have occurred to the publishers, who have decorated the covers of both books with a striking combination of silver images and dayglo titles.) In Cocaine Nights, Charles Prentice, the narrator-detective, is a professional travel writer who visits his younger brother, Frank, in southern Spain. Frank had been working as a bar manager in Estrella de Mar – an affluent expat retirement complex on the Costa del Sol – until he was arrested in connection with the deaths of several people in a house fire. He refuses to talk to Charles about what happened and pleads guilty to arson and murder, even though there is little evidence to convict him. Charles is sure that his brother is innocent and investigates the events leading up to the fire in order to get him off the hook.

Ballard is interested in the strange, provisional character of beach resorts; the rules of ordinary life are relaxed in these places, though like airports and suburbs, his other favourite locations, they seem to impose their own peculiar monotony. One of the marginal notes he added for the revised version of The Atrocity Exhibition (to what was already a fragmented and often bizarre book) describes a ‘linear city, some three thousand miles long, from Gibraltar to Glyfala beach north of Athens, and three hundred yards deep’. While he emphasises the bland uniformity of these places – ‘living there,’ he comments of the southern Spain of Cocaine Nights, ‘one is aware of the exact volumes of these generally white apartments and hotel rooms’ – he also recognises the licence this anonymity provides: ‘The office workers and secretaries all behave like petty criminals vaguely on the run.’ Estrella de Mar and Eden-Olympia are very different developments: one is intended for pleasure, the other for work. But in both places Ballard’s narrators explore the hidden violence, drug abuse and sexual perversion that has developed beneath the surface of these pseudo-utopias.

In both novels there is a manipulative figure who orchestrates the vice and justifies it intellectually. (The structural advantages of such a character are obvious: he can provide a focus for the action and be a mouthpiece for the novel’s more extreme ideas.) Bobby Crawford is the requisite anti-hero of Cocaine Nights, the boyish tennis professional at the resort where Frank works, and the man who has transformed it into a thriving, sociable centre. Believing that a community can’t exist without crime, he organises the crime in order to create the community. The fire that led to Frank’s arrest was arranged by Crawford’s friends to ensure that his energising influence would continue after he had moved on to the next resort along the coast. Frank pleads guilty because he played a pivotal, if unwitting, role in the fire and, more important, because he has come to believe in Crawford’s philosophy. By taking the blame, he can allow Crawford’s dark work to continue.

Dr Wilder Penrose takes Crawford’s role in Super-Cannes. He is the business park’s psychiatrist and is described in the novel’s opening paragraph as ‘our amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight’. Until Penrose arrived in Eden-Olympia, senior executives often suffered from various minor ailments. Penrose encouraged the executives to commit crimes as a way of restoring their energy and enthusiasm, as well as their health. Some were involved in a child prostitution racket, others took hard drugs, but most of the senior managers preferred to commit violent acts against members of the outside community, especially immigrants. Penrose had encouraged Dr Greenwood to abuse the young girls in the orphanage he had established; when Greenwood finally rebelled against the widespread cruelty, he attempted to murder those he held responsible for it.

Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes rely on an idea central to Ballard’s fiction: that forbidden activity can provide extreme liberation. But they also depend on his familiar obsession with machines. Ballard has suggested that his novels could themselves be thought of as narrative machines – which would cast the author as the man who pulls the levers. This is more than a technological fixation. Video equipment and computers are important in the novels, as are plane and car crashes, but the interest in technology is part of Ballard’s wider concern with systems: Estrella de Mar and Eden-Olympia are artificially designed social machines, planners’ solutions to the changing cultures of work and play. But these machines couldn’t operate successfully until they were taken over by well-meaning but amoral Prosperos, men who galvanised their communities by breaking the law.

Ballard’s characterisation is often weak; minor and peripheral figures can seem particularly thin and their motivation often determined more by the demands of the plot than anything else. It is a familiar failing in detective novels. But Ballard has never been a naturalistic writer, and he balances intrigue and disclosure with great skill. The closest to a conventionally convincing character in either novel is the narrator, the observer who is corrupted by an extreme situation; the other figures are no more than necessary components in the meticulously paced, compelling drama.

Ballard adds an enterprising twist to the mixture of transgression, guilt and investigation. It is a commonplace of the genre that detective and criminal are connected – they are brothers, secret sharers, divided halves of the same self. In Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, the investigators find themselves taking on many of the outward roles of the men they investigate: they live in their rooms, perform their jobs or wear their clothes. By the end of both novels, the detectives have – alarmingly – metamorphosed into versions of the criminals: Charles Prentice admits to a murder he did not commit; Paul Sinclair returns to Eden-Olympia, armed with a rifle, hoping to finish what Dr Greenwood started.