After watching ‘High Rise’ again recently and enjoying it much more than I did the first time, I was drawn back to the Ballard bookshelf, and from his later writing picked ‘Super-Cannes’ for a reappraisal. Here’s what I found.
There is a peculiar Englishness that manifests itself in exploration of the exotic, and JG Ballard remains the most exotic author of all. Shifting from the overt jungle imagery of his earlier novels, he moved into peripheral territories that at first sight seemed mundane, only to reveal themselves on closer examination as alien landscapes inhabited by alienated residents.
It felt entirely logical that his 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; 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 the new play.
Just how much more prescient could the man have been?
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 eventually melded with his heat-saturated locations and perverse behavioural patterns into a 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.
Reading it again, ‘Super-Cannes’ remains a gleaming, tooled-up taste of a tomorrow, and its time has finally arrived. If there has been one constant refrain through all of Ballard’s work, it’s that those who adapt to new circumstances, no matter how alarming they may be, will survive. Beguiling, subversive and so appropriate to the current mood, it feels like a survival handbook; it might just save your life.