JG Ballard’s Psychotic London
When you think of London books, a familiar list at first appears; Dickens for ‘Our Mutual Friend’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Bleak House’, Virginia Woolf for ‘Mrs Dalloway’, George Gissing for ‘New Grub Street’, George Orwell for ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’, Colin MacInnes for ‘Absolute Beginners’, Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Hangover Square’, to which I’d add Alexander Baron for ‘King Dido’ and Arnold Bennett for ‘Riceyman Steps’ – but JG Ballard?
True, he lived in a part of the country now virtually claimed as being in London, that very peculiar melding of landscape, islands and river inlets called Shepperton, an area which seems almost to be floating, so ubiquitous is the influence of water and boats. But his ‘five minutes into the future’ books were startling in their prescience, from ‘Concrete Island’, in which an alternative society forms among the discards of London’s traffic system to ‘High Rise’, now reaching the screen after forty years. In the book, the new wealthy elite, secure within the shell of their high-rise, are like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, free to behave in any way they wish and explore the darkest corners they can find.
Many have tried to film this tale of an alienated city filled with wealthy, lonely people living in tower blocks but plans always fell through. Mad writer/director Bruce Robinson had a crack at it in the 1980s (I think I still have his script somewhere) but it wasn’t until Ben Wheatley, director of ‘Kill List’, took the reins that we finally found someone who could bring Ballard’s power to life on the screen.
Ballard’s later books like ‘Cocaine Nights’ and ‘Super-Cannes’ may have been set in Spain and France but felt that they could easily have been set in London, and he completed his quartet of future societal breakdowns with ‘Millennium People’ and ‘Kingdom Come’, which both return to London to examine the idea of shopping and gated communities as a psychosis. Readers were quick to misunderstand his intentions with these novels, which saw a future unmoored from the oppression of history and geography as liberating as well as hellish. London is a city shackled to its history, and by freeing it Ballard saw some suffer and some rise to the challenge of change through the extremes of the new freedom.
Writing ‘The Sand Men’, a novel very strongly influenced by Ballard’s ideas, I experienced some of this critical confusion. While most seemed to understand what I was trying to get to grips with – that we wilfully choose to destroy society’s structures, one painfully literal review in a small-press magazine accused it of being anti-Arab, not appreciating that the book turned a spotlight on the British living in someone else’s community. I fear that it probably had the same effect in Dubai where it was set, but in fact while researching there I rather fell in love with the place, as Ballard did with his modernist high-rise future – because it is as liberating as it is restricting.
Critics at the Independent and several other free-thinking press organisations understood what Ballard was trying to do, with the Indie called ‘Super-Cannes’ the first essential novel of the 21st century. The brilliance of Ballard created future dystopias to examine ourselves, not the powers imposing new societies on us. What still disturbs me about Ballard is that he saw, from what is now the distant past, precisely what London is going through at the moment, with its proposed 400 new skyscrapers and areas owned exclusively by the super-rich. What is Boris Johnson but a charismatic, wrong-headed Ballard character?
What’s really bothersome is that Ballard also imagined global warming, societal collapse and the rise of messianic madmen leading uneducated people into states of terrorism. For anyone interested to read it, here’s my review for the Independent on ‘Super-Cannes’, published at the time of its publication.
There is a peculiar Britishness that manifests itself in exploration of the exotic, and JG Ballard is the most exotic author of all. Shifting from the overt jungle imagery of his earlier novels, he has moved into peripheral territories that at first sight seem mundane, only to reveal themselves on closer examination as alien landscapes inhabited by alienated residents.
It felt entirely logical that his last novel, ‘Cocaine Nights’, should have been located in a sun-blinded British colony of ersatz coastal villas. It also prefigures this tale, which is set in the hills above Cannes, in a sculpted business region modelled on the netherworld of companies and parklands that make up Sophia-Antipolis. Paul Sinclair and his beautiful young wife Jane have relocated to ‘Eden-Olympia’, and all is not as picture-perfect as it should be. Their house was formerly occupied by David Greenwood, a colleague who ran amok with a rifle, indiscriminately slaughtering his neighbours before killing himself. What drove a universally admired man to abruptly turn on those who trusted him?
A dark pathology emerges, with Ballard’s prose imbuing the slightest details with sinister weight. The darkness is inseperable from its location; mist from automatically-watered foliage rises back to the clouds, as though time is reversing itself. An object glittering at the bottom of the pool, assumed to be a coin, is revealed as a bullet. The language has a sinuous elegance, as dangerous and enticing as a poisonous snake. Ballard’s catalogue of images and sensations is richly explored here; Paul’s leg is damaged from an abortive solo flight. His wife is an icily enigmatic doctor, as aloof as an Allan Jones mannequin. The resident psychologist Wilder Penrose adopts a disturbingly messianic tone. Privacy and stillness are punctuated with sudden moments of pain. Control is violated, and perversity is never far from the edge of the frame.
As in his earlier novel ‘Running Wild’, odd details about the massacre fail to add up. Paul begins an oblique investigation into the past, and a new moral order suggests itself as the book reveals its most powerful ideas; that the future contains enslavement, not freedom, that corporate identity removes the need for democratic accountability, that work is, in fact, the new play.
It’s been noted before that Ballard’s descriptive prose recalls the cruel clarity of Dali or Magritte, and here the fetishism and loneliness of his hyperreal images come as a natural extension of the story. He instinctively understands that to fetishise everyday objects you must make them desirable, a point David Cronenberg avoided in his version of ‘Crash’. Interestingly, Ballard increasingly applies this stylisation to his characters’ conversations, so that their diction adopts strange formal structures like those found in the works of Ronald Firbank or even Peter Greenaway. He creates paradoxes worthy of Wilde; ‘I’m a devoted husband,’ explains Paul. ‘That must strike you as totally deviant.’ At times he seems on the verge of parodying himself; ‘Her hips pressed against the BMW, and the curvature of its door deflected the lines of her thigh, as if the car was a huge orthopaedic device that expressed a voluptuous mix of geometry and desire.’ Indeed, there is plenty of dark humour here, and to prove the point Ballard wrings a joke from a conversation about colonoscopy.
More fascinating is the increasing convergence of this extraordinary author’s ideas. Many years ago he expressed a fascination with assassins and the rituals of assassination. Those tropes are now melded with his heat-saturated locations and perverse behavioural patterns into an ever more seamless whole. Characters and situations are peeled back to their most personal subconcious levels, and although Ballard appears less concerned with plot machinations, the story operates on a traditionally satisfying arc.
‘Super-Cannes’ is a gleaming, tooled-up taste of tomorrow, beguiling, subversive and so appropriate to the mood of the new century that it feels like a survival handbook; it might just save your life.