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J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes


Ballard, J.G. New York: St. Martin's, 2001. 392 p., $24.00, hardback. ISBN: 0312284195.

Ballard's fiction has often appeared in loose sequences, forming a constellation of texts grouped around a single unifying theme. For example, the early disaster novels, such as The Crystal World (1966), explored how ecological disaster could be mapped onto the human brain, exploring a Surrealist high/low topography of consciousness, while the techno-horror novels, such as Crash (1975), explore the liberating potential of technology. Super-Cannes (2001) is the next phase in a new Ballardian cycle of fiction, exploring similar themes to its predecessor Cocaine Nights (1996); this current cycle reveals Ballard to be a latter-day Arthur Koestler, ruminating not on the ethics of revolution, which in our own post-radical era seems anachronistic, but on the more localized ethics of community. Ballard's attention has come to rest upon the notion of what constitutes a truly authentic community, but he has also retained an interest in how seemingly altruistic acts may in fact conceal more unsavoury motives. These ideas may be encapsulated in the recurrent Ballard phrase "in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom" (Ballard, Running Wild 84). Whether this freedom is an escape from the imperatives of capitalism or simply a capitulation to its objectives is a matter for debate.

Super-Cannes opens with Paul and Jane Sinclair travelling to the European yuppie business park "Eden-Olympia," where Jane is about to take a job there as a doctor. A few months previously, another doctor called David Greenwood ran amok shooting the residents, before apparently turning the gun upon himself. By a strange coincidence, the Sinclair's find themselves residing in Greenwood's flat. The Sinclair's are gradually drawn into the machinations of the sinister Wilder Penrose, the park psychiatrist, who is the standard Ballardian archetype of "the psychopath as saint." In this way, Penrose is analogous to older Ballardian protagonists such as Bobby Crawford in Cocaine Nights and Vaughan in Crash.

Both Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes explore what happens when communities become subject to a grinding puritanism, and our social activities, even leisure, become increasingly regimented and sterile; there is a lack of "waste" in leisure, and agonistic values of excess are jettisoned in favour of "civilized" values. The solution for Wilder Penrose is reached through the homeopathic injection of "madness" into the stultifying work regime that dominates the park. However, this "madness" often takes the form of the "ratissage," in which the privileged residents leave the gated community and terrorize the indigenous disadvantaged population located outside the boundaries of the park. Penrose invokes a pseudo-Nietzschean argument in order to justify these acts of brutality, saying: "aristocracies keep alive those endangered pleasures that repel the bourgeoisie" (96). However, the violent acts unleashed by the Eden-Olympia yuppies do not constitute aristocratic values, since they follow a "restricted economy" that is clearly a perversion of the "will to power" that is parasitic upon the under-privileged and disenfranchised of society. The only true revolt, a violent act of symbolic exchange, emerges when David Greenwood forcibly wrests away yuppie "death capital" by gunning down the affluent Eden-Olympians, paying them back for the unpleasant acts they have perpetrated.[1] Similarly, in Cocaine Nights, the excess advocated by Bobby Crawford is exposed to be merely a cynical potlatch, since it serves to raise money for opportunists such as Elizabeth Shand. Ultimately, Paul discovers the sickening truth about Eden-Olympia, and while the aristocratic values that Wilder Penrose valorizes do raise important points about the puritanical nature of contemporary life, they can also function as an alibi for domination and misery. At the end of the novel, Paul takes up his gun, planning to finish the symbolic revolt that David Greenwood started.

Ballard has hinted that his next novel will be the culmination of his current cluster of works, and will concern the nature of terrorism. In the light of September 11th, 2001, Ballard's work is a salutary reminder of how protests can be hijacked by those who seek to fulfil personal, covert motives.

Liam Thomas McNamara

[1 ] Jean Baudrillard's argument is that production in the "political economy of the sign" operates through a deferred death inculcated by salaries and wages; the reciprocity of the gift is held in check since the gift of labour makes the worker want to give his death in return, but wages stop this. The enforced "aristocratic" leisure that occurs under the aegis of production encourages us to invest in our "death capital," whereas David Greenwood's revolt is a symbolic retaliation against this process. See Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p.36-43.