Super Cannes – JG Ballard

A gripping and – of course – disturbing mystery, Ballard’s analysis of corporate capitalism shows us that some desires always need excluding or repressing to create an apparently perfect order.

Paul Sinclair is travelling to live for six months in Eden Olympia, an executive business park outside Cannes where multinationals are relocating, bringing their top executives to work and live in a gated and guarded community where everything they could ever need is provided.

He is travelling with his young wife, Jane, who has a six month contract as a doctor after the previous one, David Greenwood, apparently went off the rails in a mass shooting at Eden Olympia.

It doesn’t take long for things to unravel. Eden Olympia it turns out is the brain child of psychologist Penrose who recognises that business people can work productively in this environment, where work is all, but that all the monotony of this world needs an outlet. So he organises outings into Cannes for these managers to go out and beat up immigrants and attack prostitutes, all in the name of corporate success. Everyone in the complex is involved, but nobody speaks of it.

Gradually Paul, who is an outsider in many ways, becomes obsessed with why Greenwood – an apparently kind and gentle doctor – went crazy. He talks and is used by various people, the head of security, Penrose an Frances Baring who he has a relationship with.

Jane meanwhile is fully incorporated into Eden Olympia, she self-medicates and engages in strange and dangerous sexual relationships with some of the most powerful people in Eden Olympia.

It’s a good Ballard novel, not always a pleasure to read, but interesting, full of insight and ideas, and often surprising – though it bears a strong resemblance to Cocain Nights.

More than anything, and most effectively, it entertainingly explores the psychoanalytic insight of displacement. That when something is foreclosed desire will emerge in unruly and uncontrollable ways. At Eden Olympia the lives of the executives are thoroughly smoothed out – their lives are busy and fulfilled with work, their homes are beautiful, nothing outside of the complex’s control impinges on their lives. They are even developing a way to predict health problems so they are addressed before they happen.

But Penrose knows that this level of order can’t be maintained – people need disorder and rage and despair in their lives, and so he engineers for this to happen outside of their utopia, so the executives can expunge their base desires and maintain their order.

Politically, Super Cannes is similar to the theoretical writings of the likes of Chantal Mouffe, who argues the perfect ordered society is impossible – there will always be radical differences that cannot be assimilated and need to excluded or oppressed. What Penrose is doing is creating a gated utopia where the unruliness is allowed to be manifest outside to maintain order inside.

Applied Ballardianism – Simon Sellars

What an incredible read this is – like a drug-addled romp through critical theory, cultural theory, memoir, fiction all haunted by the continual presence of JG Ballard’s indictment of our hypercapitalist era as an already-present dystopia.
It seems to be the memoir of the actual book’s author, Sellars, detailing his descent from a young PhD student studying Ballard, to someone clinging onto reality as he takes Ballard’s call to action more and more seriously, trying to go beyond the madness of motorways and malls to push and push until he can feel something.
He gets a gig as a travel writer, travelling around distant islands before moving back to Australia and hooking up with various fellow travellers to explore alternate worlds, edgelands, motorway networks, surveillance and all the hallmarks of Ballard’s take on the modern city.
Like the characters in Ballard’s Crash or Cocaine Nights or High Rise, he seems to have realised that everything is possible today, and so novelty and originality require people to embrace violence. On the other hand he is also on the edge of becoming – or wanting to become – like the main figure in Concrete Island, someone who becomes trapped in a space in a motorway network and retreats entirely from the modern world.
The book is part of a series from the publisher called ‘adventures in theory-fiction’. And as you read on the author / protagonist gets more and more embroiled in ludicrous and often horrific scenarios to the point that you are wondering if this is true or not, whether this is a memoir or a piece of fiction. But actually that’s the Ballardian point – what’s real and what’s not breaks down in this world of CCTV and clones and machines. 
It’s like Marshland by Gareth E Rees, where the stories meld biography and fantasy and you don’t know which is which. Ballard would delight in that. Sellars’s world is messy, funny, violent, haunted by ghosts from different dimensions, and most of all packed with Ballardian insights into our world now, where nothing is real yet everything is real.

“The more arid and affectless life became in the high rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By it’s very efficiency… it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses… in many ways, the high rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

JG Ballard, High Rise

JG Ballard – High Rise

This is a fantastic and disturbing story, as well as a meditation on the base urges that are only partially hidden by the veneer of modern society.

The novel focuses on the minutiae of social breakdown in a suite of high rise apartment blocks populated by well-to-do professionals – academics, doctors, journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs. The 1000th apartment had just been filled and gradually the deterioration begins. First there are minor fall-outs over the elevator or waste chutes or swimming pool access. Next there are loud parties where the upper floors taunt and begin to physically intimidate those from below.

Eventually all conventions breakdown: dogs are killed and eaten, people physically attacked, there’s no lighting or food or hygiene, people are murdered, family units are given up, women are raped. Eventually there is nothing left but unfiltered desires for basic urges: violence, sex, food.

The book tells the story through three characters. Laing, a young doctor, recently divorced, who loves the high rise, seems to some extent able to view it objectively whilst also being entirely implicated in its degeneration, and who gradually becomes more and more depraved. Wilder, a TV journalist who wants to make a documentary about the high rise but is unable to maintain his objectivity and degenerates into no more than a savage. And Royal, one of the architects of the high rise living in the penthouse, who is as little responsible for its demise as the others or the building itself.

As well as a gripping story, High Rise is a powerful allegory. Partly it’s of high rise and city living, of the way that by living close together people will inevitably give way to basic selfish urges. But as much as anything it’s an allegory for how human culture, norms and civilisation obscure a host of basic animal drives that are a the core of what it is to be human. In a way it’s another example of ‘desolation fiction’, writing about the basics, the essentials, of life once all the unnecessaries of modern life have been stripped away.

I do love this book, though it is somewhat essentialist about what makes humans human. In part it is essentialist about human drives. But also about gender. The men, as they degenerate, become lone hunter gatherers, intent on getting or protecting women, on violence, on sex. The women work together in packs, maintain a semblance of a home, look for men to please. Whether Ballard’s commenting on what underlies men and women’s roles in modern society, or saying it’s something more enduring than that, it’s hard to say, but either way it seems to reflect a kind of stereotyped view of men and women.

But that aside, High Rise is a superb study of how modern life is no more than a veneer pasted over the reality beneath.

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.

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.