by J. G. Ballard
2001 400 pp. 25.00
© Steven E. Alford
In the mind of the public, there
are two J.G. Ballards, one associated with the warmly nostalgic film Empire
of the Sun, and the other with the resolutely repellent Crash.
As a writer of novels rather than movie fodder, however, his
twenty-plus-novel oeuvre is much more complex.
His latest, Super-Cannes, is an intriguing piece of contemporary
social criticism disguised as a murder mystery.
Brit Paul Sinclair edits an aviation magazine along with his cousin,
Charles. While flying a vintage
aircraft, Sinclair injures himself and is taken to the hospital, where he meets
gamine, bohemian, twenty-eight-year-old Jane Gomersall, a couple of decades his
Romance ensues, and Paul finds
himself taking a leave of absence from the magazine to follow his physician wife
to Eden-Olympia, a.k.a. Super-Cannes, a spectacular seaside corporate complex
overlooking the famed French resort.
There “representative democracy had been replaced by the surveillance
camera and the private police force.”
Jane was hired to replace David
Greenwood, a dedicated and gentle children’s doctor, who unaccountably went on
a murder spree at Super-Cannes, killing a number of senior executives and then
himself. Paul and Jane arrive to
find themselves assigned to the dead man’s house where some of the murders
As Jane goes off to work, Paul,
now a man of leisure, begins to suspect that the account of Greenwood’s death
is a cover-up, a story concocted to protect the enormously powerful corporate
interests underwriting Super-Cannes. To
heighten his unease, he learns that Jane and David may have been lovers.
After finding a series of clues
that undermine the public account of the crime, Paul finds himself drifting
apart from Jane while sinking deeper into an investigation of the murky events
that preceded the murders. He has
to contend with Zander, head of security, “thuggish, bisexual, and corrupt,”
and Penrose, the resident psychologist.
From Penrose Sinclair learns that
Super-Cannes may well inaugurate the brave new future of the workplace.
“The dream of a leisure society was the great twentieth-century
delusion. Work is the new leisure.
Talented and ambitious people work harder than they have ever done, and
for longer hours. They find their
only fulfillment through work.”
In the course of his inquiry, Paul
learns to his horror that the workaholic employees of Eden-Europa lead a
dangerous and corrupt existence during the few hours they have between work and
sleep, engaging in “armed robberies, murders, drive-by killings, drug dealing,
racist attacks, paedophile sex.” These
crimes are tolerated by Super-Cannes’ corporate overseers, who understand that
“going mad is the only way of staying sane.”
Paul’s wife is not immune to
this new milieu, and they begin to live separate lives while living in the same
house. Their alienation seems only
natural in such an environment.
“Today we scarcely know our
neighbours, shun most forms of civic involvement and happily leave the running
of society to a case of political technicians.
People find all the togetherness they need in the airport boarding lounge
and the department-store line. They
pay lip service to community values but prefer to be alone.”
To maintain his own sanity, Paul
must solve the mystery of the Greenwood murders and reclaim his marital
relationship while undergoing constant surveillance by the violent and amoral
forces of the Super-Cannes security force.
Beneath its sexually sophisticated
surface, this novel sports a traditionally romantic, hydraulic psychology:
animal urges, repressed by ubiquitous technological control, need to find an
outlet. Ballard has created the
sociological version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a modern corporate audience.
And, unlike the metaphysics of Fowles’ The Magus or the
exuberant pessimism of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Ballard’s novel
finds ideology at the base of our modern predicament.
“The crime wave is already there.
It’s called consumer capitalism.”
Super-Cannes critiques an antiseptic,
corporate-totalitarian world that seeks, unsuccessfully, to control human
passions. While Ballard’s
psychology and ideology are those of a nineteenth-century lefty, his fine
writing and absorbing plot lift this novel above the customary warnings
regarding the fate of our consumer-mad culture.