Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

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The Concrete Island – JG Ballard

Read Jan 2016

The Concrete Island is a fantastic premise. Maitland – a successful architect who divides his time between work, family and mistress – crashes into a large traffic island in the middle of a series of motorways and slip-roads. He is injured enough to get stuck and can’t get off the island. Despite being in the middle of the city nobody notices him, and because his life is so split it appears even those closest to him aren’t searching for him.

He eventually finds two misfits living on the island who are trying to get away from modem life. And, in fact, the book is quite hard going and descriptive until these characters turn up and some inject some life into things about a third of the way through. Initially he appears to be their captive but the life skills and material goods he has acquired through ongoing engagement in the capitalist world enables him to turn the tables on them.

In the end Maitland drives them away – one of them dies and the other leaves – creating an apt metaphor for how we corrupt enclaves of relative innocence when we touch them with capitalist society. 

Gradually, as he drives the others away, Maitland becomes accustomed to the island. It ends with him choosing not to leave the island immediately, with the help of the other two, but to do it on his own, in his own time. Again, what Ballard is presenting here is a nice metaphor for the individualism of modern capitalism, with Maitland refusing help and deciding that if he leaves the island it must be on his own terms and done entirely by himself.