Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996)

‘Leisure societies lie ahead of us…’ (Irving Sanger, p.180)

A poolside thriller

Although it’s longer than almost any of Ballard’s other novels, Cocaine Nights feels like a nice easy read, an airport or poolside thriller with an increasingly psychotic edge.

I found Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise a struggle to finish because their stories were so preposterous, but Cocaine Nights fits much more easily into the thriller genre and for much of the time was as easy as eating an ice cream at the cinema. It was published 26 long years after Ballard had published the angular, challenging, Atrocity Exhibition and, reading this book, it feels worlds away in size, form and approach…

Cocaine Nights is a confident first-person narrative told by Charles Prentice, a seasoned travel writer who’s knocked about a bit and knows the ways of the world. When he learns that his kid brother Frank has been arrested and will be going on trial in Marbella, in the south of Spain, Charles flies to Gibraltar, hires a car and drives up the Spanish coast.

Frank has been living for the past few years in an exclusive resort named Estrella de Mar where he was manager of the popular Club Nautico, overseeing ‘a familiar world of squash courts, jacuzzis and plunge-pools’.

Charles checks into a nearby hotel, and makes an appointment to meet Frank’s Spanish lawyer. Here, for the first time, he discovers the charges against his brother. A swanky holiday house overlooking the resort was set on fire in an act of deliberate arson, and the retired British couple who lived there, the Hollingers, along with their niece Anne, an au pair and the male secretary, Roger Sansom, were all burned to death in the arson attack.

Frank was discovered by the police a few hours later in possession of molotov cocktails – wine bottles filled with a highly flammable mix of ether and petrol – of the kind which without doubt started the fire. When Charles finally manages to visit Frank at his Spanish prison he discovers, to his bewilderment and consternation, that Frank is going to plead guilty.

Charles spends a week snooping round Estrella, interviewing as many of the inhabitants as he can. On the surface it’s bustling with good, clean, wholesome bourgeois activities, a theatre club putting on plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, an arts cinema, pottery classes, tennis lessons, choral societies – it’s Surrey by the sea.

In many ways Estrella de Mar was the halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930s, brought back to life and moved south into the sun. Here there were no gangs of bored teenagers, no deracinated suburbs where neighbours scarcely knew each other and their only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store. As everyone never tired of saying, Estrella de Mar was a true community, with schools for the French and British children, a thriving Anglican church and a local council of elected members which met at the Club Nautico. However modestly, a happier twentieth century had rediscovered itself in this corner of the Costa del Sol…

And:

Purpose-built in the 1970s by a consortium of Anglo-Dutch developers, Estrella de Mar was a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe. The resort had turned its back on mass tourism, and there were none of the skyscraper blocks that rose from the water’s edge at Benalmadena and Torremolinos. The old town by the harbour had been pleasantly bijouized, the fishermen’s cottages converted to wine bars and antique shops. Taking the road that led to the Club Nautico, I passed an elegant tea salon, a bureau de change decorated with Tudor half-timbering, and a boutique whose demure window displayed a solitary but exquisite designer gown. I waited as a van emblazoned with trompe-l’œil traffic scenes reversed into the courtyard of a sculpture studio…

What with this thriving art scene, drama club, art classes, pilates, swimming lessons, sailing, tennis and much, much more, Estrella de Mar seems like paradise:

Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

But the more ‘amateur sleuthing’ Charles does and the more he finds out, the stranger the place appears.

One night, sitting in his car outside the resort’s main nightclub, the Club Nautico, pondering his next move, he sees what he takes to be a violent rape taking place in a car parked nearby. He runs over to rescue the woman, the man makes a getaway out the other door, but the woman, although obviously assaulted, with her knickers round her ankles and bleeding from the mouth, shrugs him off, pulls herself together and walks away. More disconcerting, as he stands there confused, Charles realises there was an audience watching: there are couples sitting in all the cars facing the one where the assault was taking place. Exasperated, Charles bangs his fists on their windshields:

‘What are you people playing at?’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake . . .’

But one by one the cars turn on their ignitions, and slowly drive way.

Similarly, Charles notices prostitutes hanging round some of the streets in micro-skirts and boob tubes, mingling with the traffic, waiters, delivery men, shopkeepers and so on of the busy resort. But, on closer examination, he is disconcerted to realise that they are two ‘respectable’ women, wives of two men who run the town’s travel agency. Is it a kind of sex game, played to excite their husbands, or themselves? Or do they need the money?

A similar sense of bafflement surrounds descriptions of the fateful fire which killed the Hollingers. It happened on the Queen’s birthday, 15 June, and wasn’t a secret affair, the opposite. The villa was hosting a big party with everyone who was anyone at the resort invited, and so there was a crowd of over 200 drinking, partying, laughing, around the villa’s massive swimming pool. Hollinger even proposed a loyal toast to the Queen from his balcony, before going back inside (he was, Charles is repeatedly told, patriotic but aloof and rather pompous). Then suddenly the crowd started to realise that the big villa was on fire. Various guests tried to smash in the patio doors or windows, but they were fire-sealed and security-locked. Some guests tried to put ladders up to the first floor balcony and windows but the ladder caught fire.

So a) everyone saw the fire happen happen b) a lot of people tried to intervene but c) the Hollingers didn’t try to open any doors or windows but, apparently, stayed snug inside their separate bedrooms while their villa burned to the ground around them.

Charles visits the scene of the burned-out villa with one of the ex-pats who was there that night and who takes him through the events in detail. He closely questions all the other ex-pats who’ll agree to see him. He has long conversations with Frank himself, on his visits to him in prison, but his brother is infuriatingly vague about what happened or who is to blame. Charles is stunned when Frank’s lawyer tells him Frank is definitely going to please guilty to all five counts of murder.

Why? Why confess to a crime he didn’t commit? What the hell is going on?

To find out Charles decides he has to move into Estrella de Mar itself, so he checks out of the hotel up the coast where he’d been staying (the Los Monteros Hotel) and takes up occupation of Frank’s now-empty apartment, and starts digging deeper into the place and its inhabitants. All this has taken place by about page 70 – chapter 6 of the book’s 28 chapters – and the rest of the novel describes what he finds out.

And he finds out… that there is, as the BBC Sunday night drama has it, Death in Paradise. From the start Ballard had set a tone of aggressive sexuality – Charles has only just got into his hire car at Gibraltar when he spies a sultry woman driver in a nearby car fixing her make-up and has sexual fantasies about her. He is quick to spot the hookers on the streets of Estrella da Mar and quick to embark on a sexual affair with the resort’s troubled doctor, Paula Hamilton, and quickly suspects the bruises around her face are not from some harmless accident, but from the rough sex games, the S&M scene he quickly suspects exists behind closed doors at the resort.

So far so BDSM, so Crash, so porny. But if you park the porn – and Charless quick realisation that a certain amount of drugs is being consumed at the resort, mainly speed and cocaine – if you put all this modish window dressing to one side, the basic structure of the story is the same as a hundred Agatha Christie novels, and a thousand sleepy, Sunday night BBC ‘dramas’, the same basic structure:

  1. at an idyllic country community / stately home / happy family
  2. a mysterious death occurs
  3. an outsider comes in to investigate (Poirot, Miss Marple, Charles Prentice)
  4. who conducts a series of interviews with half a dozen key players
  5. which slowly reveal that any one of half a dozen characters might have had motives to carry out the murder(s)
  6. in which he or she uncovers clues carefully placed by the writer to keep us guessing
  7. so that the outsider/investigator slowly discovers that the idyllic community / stately home / happy family has dark (and hopefully depraved) secrets
  8. until by a process of induction, or through further incriminating events, the outsider/investigator finally discovers ‘the truth’

Thus, although the sex and drugs elements are fashionably depraved, and some of the details are quirky (like when Charles is buzz-bombed by a man-powered glider, which is a throwback to his weirder sci-fi stories) on the whole the narrative unfolds with the utter predictability of a 1930s murder mystery.

As you might have predicted, ‘shadowy figures’ try to warn Charles off, starting with a half-hearted attempt to strangle him on the balcony of Frank’s apartment, which is arranged to frighten him but not to actually hurt him.

As you might expect, Charles accompanies the Spanish detective in charge of the investigation on an extended tour of the burned-out villa as they retrace the stages of the crime, step by gruesome step, lingering over each room in which one or more of the victims were found burned or asphyxiated to death.

As you might expect, the detective reveals some unusual facts, such as that old Hollinger died in the house jacuzzi (good idea) but not with his wife, with young Anna the au pair. And that Anna was pregnant – but with whose child? Tut tut. And that Mrs Hollinger wasn’t in her room but in bed with the male secretary, Sansom. Saucy goings-on. ‘Lawks a-mercy, Monsieur Poirot, whoever would have thought it!’

As you might expect, Charles discovers a videotape in the melted VHS player of the burned-out villa – which the police have somehow overlooked – and takes it back to Frank’s apartment to view. It is, to no-one’s surprise, a porno, an amateur hand-held affair which starts with a standard lesbian romp, but turns nasty when some tough young men enter and appear to genuinely rape the tearful central figure. Yes, Estrella de Mar has a darker side, which grows a lot darker when Charles discovers it was his new girlfriend, Dr Paula Hamilton, who filmed the whole event.

As you might expect, there is a morose outsider, who has his own secrets to hide. In a Christie novel it’s often the gamekeeper or family retainer who turns out to have his own secrets. In this book it is the gloomy Swede Andersson, who maintains high powered speedboats which – on investigation – defy the Spanish navy to import hashish and heroin from North Africa. Drug smuggling.

Stuff happens. Someone sets fire to a stolen speedboat in the harbour. Someone sets fire to Prentice’s hire car. Someone dive bombs him with a hang glider when he climbs to the lemon grove above the Hollingers’ burned-out villa looking for evidence.

He feels himself settling into this world of casual crime, drug-taking and porn film-making, a ‘hidden Estrella de Mar, a shadow world of backstreet bars, hard-core video-stores and fringe pharmacies’, his brother Frank, stuck in gaol, becoming an ever more notional figure. Sanger the resort psychiatrist says he’s beginning to resemble his brother.

The Bobby Crawford effect

Bobby Crawford, the resort’s energetic tennis coach, was drifting down the coast from one sleepy resort to the next. When he arrived at Estrella da Mar he found it as torpid and somnolent as all the others he’d been at. But party by accident he was involved in some petty crimes and observed that it pepped the victims up no end. Experimentally, he embarked on a one-man crime wave, breaking into the luxury villas, nicking video players, pouring wine on precious carpets, spraying graffiti on garage doors, vandalising cars.

The effect is dramatic. People come out of their TV-induced coma to come to the resort offices to complain. They set up neighbourhood watch schemes. Having met each other they have parties to discuss latest developments, discover they have a taste for amateur dramatics or sports. People started turning up at what had previously been Crawford’s moribund tennis club.

I understood how [Frank] had fallen under Crawford’s spell, accepting the irresistible logic that had revived the Club Nautico and the moribund town around it. Crime would always be rife, but Crawford had put vice and prostitution and drug-dealing to positive social ends. Estrella de Mar had rediscovered itself.

The owners and investors – notably the shark-like Betty Shand – in the resort observe all this. They egg Crawford on. Encouraged he explores how far he can take the notion of energising crime. Some of the members of the newly founded film club are encouraged to make saucy films. A handful of the tougher sports club members are recruited into Crawford’s gang which carries out random attacks or thefts.

Ballard’s thesis

So bit by bit, Ballard’s thesis is at first hinted at by various characters, and then finally explained at length by Crawford in what might as well be a Shakespearian soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. The thesis is that society is sinking into a profound slump of boredom and accidie, addicted to TV while its mind vegetates. But people need excitement and an environment of petty crime energises and enlivens entire communities.

What they need, though they refuse to accept it, is a certain amount of amoral crime. And the person who supplies it, the impresario of crime, is the unacknowledged saviour of moribund communities. In the right time and place, the psychopath can be a saint.

‘The psychopath plays a vital role. He meets the needs of the hour, touches our graceless lives with the only magic we know…’ (Bobby Crawford explaining to Charles)

Put to the test – the Residencia Costasol

And all this is put to the test, when the likeable energetic Crawford recruits Charles in him and his rich sponsors’ next project which is to move on to the next sleepy ex-pat resort down the coast, the Residencia Costasol.

Half-reluctant but intrigued, Charles allows himself to be persuaded to become the manager of the main nightclub in the resort down the road. It is dead in the water, an utterly moribund community of numbed zombies who stay indoors all day watching TV. Charles watches how just a few incidents of petty crime begin to waken the dead. Crawford takes him on a car tour of the empty, perfectly manicured streets, with Crawford stopping every so often to break into an empty villa and steal a video recorder, or some jewellery, to spraypaint a garage door or vandalise a slumbering Porsche.

Charles is initially sceptical but then amazed when people start visiting the resort offices to complain, stop to buy some stuff, go into the bars for a drink, a few of them sign up with Crawford’s tennis club, some of them ask about entertainment at Charles’s nightclub.

Charles finds himself sucked into the scheme and becoming compliant to ever greater scandals. When a luxury yacht is burned down in the marina, it not only shocks the inhabitants, it reminds everyone that they own yachts, and soon the yacht club is booming. And so is Charles’s nightclub, doing a roaring trade, with people staying up late partying to the dance music. Which of course attracts drug dealers who Crawford, we find out, is managing and running. Similarly, some prostitutes arrive but Charles is stunned when he realises some of the women tottering in high heels, micro-skirts and boob tubes are wives of well-to-do residents. The Crawford Effect works. Residencia Costasol is becoming another Estrella da Mar.

Charles turns into his brother

All this has taken some months and Charles changes. He had rushed out to Spain on the first flight to help his brother and pestered his lawyers and the police for his first few weeks. Then, as he uncovers more about Estrella’s secret sub-culture, he put off seeing his brother until he understands more. And this quest to understand takes him down the road we’ve described, until he realises he has become his brother – performing exactly the role in the Residencia Costasol that Frank played in Estrella, a lynchpin in the resort’s social life, turning a blind eye to activities which skirt illegality and, increasingly, veer into outright immorality, but not taking an active part so much as trying to restrain or channel Bobby Crawford’s boyish, unstoppable, amoral appetite for stirring things up.

And so it is that Charles puts off opportunities to visit his brother for months on end, and slowly comes to the realisation that he doesn’t want to or need to. When Paul Hamilton tells him that Frank’s much-delayed trial is about to start the next day, Charles brushes it off. His metamorphosis into his amoral brother is complete.

Whodunnit

Eventually we get to the payoff, which comes as little or no surprise. Who set fire to the Hollingers’ villa? They all did or, to be more precise, all the main characters Charles has met played a part. There wasn’t really a central mastermind or fixed plan, but some of the people he’s met got hold of petrol and ether, others filled the villa’s air conditioning with this flammable mix. Each individual told themselves they were preparing a prank, a practical joke, a bit extreme maybe, but essentially harmless. In an act of collective psychosis none of them acknowledged what they were doing, until it began to happen and then it was too late – the fire spread too fast and aggressively for anyone to stop it or the villa’s inhabitants to escape.

And then the collective act had performed its function. The entire community felt bound together by collective guilt, like members of some primitive tribe who kill, cook and eat their chief. They have all partaken of the blood sacrifice. They are bound more closely than ever together.

‘He [Bobby Crawford] stumbled on the first and last truth about the leisure society, and perhaps all societies. Crime and creativity go together, and always have done. The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together. It’s a strange paradox.’ (Paula Hamilton explaining to Charles)

And in fact, to his dismay, his lover Paul Hamilton who finally reveals all this to him, also reveals that Frank did in fact play a key role in the arson. And that’s why he has decided to plead guilty. By pleading guilty he saves the others, saves the community.

Novel or fable?

By this stage you can see how the book has ceased to be a realistic novel or thriller. It is making a case. It is what the French call a roman à thèse – a novel which is didactic or which expounds a theory. Humans are animals. Despite all propaganda to the opposite, they need excitement and thrills. The person who provides this excitement – the psychopath as saint – is reviled but secretly welcomed. The sequence of petty crimes leads inexorably to a great act of collective murder which binds the community in collective guilt.

By this point the book has ceased being a realistic novel and become a kind of elaboration of Sigmund Freud’s highly questionable anthropological theories. In his later writings Freud speculated that early human societies were bound together through the ritual murder of The Father, and claimed to have found evidence for this in ancient mythology, from the Greeks to the ancient Israelites.

If you buy into this logic, or if you are now reading the book more as a Freudian fable than as a Christie-style whodunnit, the final section comes as no surprise, but has a pleasing inevitability about it. Things are thriving at the Residencia Costasol but Charles picks up more and more signals that another extreme event is in the offing, though he can’t discover what it is, and for a while the reader is alarmed that he himself might be the target, or his erstwhile lover, Paul Hamilton.

Or, in a big red herring, maybe the target will be Dr Irwin Sanger, the resident psychotherapist at Estrella de Mar who, we come to learn, has a fetish for under-age girls, and is more or less driven out of Estralla, taking refuge in a villa he’s bought at the Residencia Costasol, close to the one Charles is living in. Is a gang of vigilantes going to attack the increasingly fragile old man and torch his villa?

In the event it is Bobby Crawford. He’d made an appointment to meet Charles, but as Charles approaches the tennis court where Bobby spends all his time between supervising the community’s criminal activities, he finds Crawford lying on the court, shot through the heart. Charles stoops and picks up the small handgun which killed him, moves Bobby’s head, gets blood all over his shirt and hands… just as he hears the siren of the police car, looks up to see Inspector Cabrera, who had investigated the original arson attack, who had quizzed him at length about his brother, who had watched his character slowly transform… Inspector Cabrera walks towards him across the court and in the last sentences Charles realises that he, Charles Prentice, will take the blame, take the rap, plead guilty of Bobby’s murder… for the greater good of the community.

And the novel ends on this Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe moment.


Characters

An indication of its difference from previous novels is the sheer number of characters. A novel like The Crystal World had about eight named characters, Concrete Island only about four, whereas Cocaine Nights feels has the extended cast of Eastenders.

The narrator

  • Charles Prentice, travel writer and older brother of Frank
  • Frank Prentice, long term inhabitant of Estrella de Mar, accused of the murder by arson of the Hollingers

The ex pats

  • David Hennessy, retired Lloyd’s underwriter, now doddery the treasurer of the Club Nautico
  • Bobby Crawford, Club Nautico’s tennis professional and impresario of crime and transgressive behaviour
  • Dr Paula Hamilton, physician at the Princess Margaret Clinic, formerly Frank’s girlfriend
  • Sonny Gardner, barman and crew member on  Frank’s thirty-foot yacht
  • Elizabeth Shand, Estrella de Mar’s most successful businesswoman, a former partner of Hollinger’s
  • Dr Irwin Sanger, Bibi’s psychiatrist
  • Anthony Bevis, owner of the Cabo D’Ora Gallery
  • Colin Dewhurst, manager of a bookshop in the Plaza Iglesias
  • Blanche and Marion Keswick, two jaunty Englishwomen who ran the Restaurant du Cap, an elegant brasserie by the harbour
  • Gunnar Andersson, a young Swede who tuned speedboat engines at the marina, boyfriend of Bibi
  • a retired Bournemouth accountant and his sharp-eyed wife who runs a video-rental store in the Avenida Ortega
  • the Reverend Davis, the pale and earnest vicar of the Anglican church (officiates at one of the funerals of the arson victims)

The five arson victims

  • the Hollingers – he a retired British film producer, she (Alice) one of the last of the Rank Charm School starlets
  • Anne, their niece
  • Bibi Jansen, the Swedish au pair who died in the fire
  • the gay male secretary, Roger Sansom

The Spanish authorities

  • Senor Danvila – Frank’s lawyer
  • Inspector Cabrera, detective investigating the arson case
  • Rodney Lewis, Charles’s agent in London

Strengths

Ballard writes so vividly. Almost every paragraph has a phrase which scintillates with linguistic charge. There is a wonderful clarity and precision to his vision.

  • The pool terrace was deserted, the choppy water settling itself for the night
  • I walked into the dining room, listening to my footsteps as they dogged me across the parquet flooring
  • [after the fire] The remote-control unit lay on the bedside table, melted like black chocolate
  • Shreds of burnt chintz clung to the walls, and the dressing room resembled a coal scuttle in a rage
  • Dominating all the other craft in the yard was a fibre-glass powerboat almost forty feet long, three immense outboards at its stern like the genitalia of a giant aquatic machine

He’s not always on song. Sometimes the rhetoric can become overwrought, almost always when he lapses into cliché, into the expected:

  •  The faint scent of bath gel still clung to my skin, the perfume of my own strangulation that embraced me like a forbidden memory

And so part of the pleasure of reading the book comes from watching Ballard navigate the fine line between acuity and pretentiousness, between vivid originality and something a little more clumsy. For example, which side of the line is this?

He left the boatyard and led me along the walkway between the moored yachts and cabin-cruisers. The white-hulled craft seemed almost spectral in the dusk, a fleet waiting to sail on a phantom wind.

That’s a little over-ripe for me, a bit too self-consciously Gothic. A phrase like this overlays the scene with a forced or pretentious comparison. It moves from the specific outwards to the general and so diffuses the effect. I prefer descriptions which travel in the opposite direction, which zero in, which make you sit up and pay closer attention to the thing itself:

Andersson stopped at the end of the quay, where a small sloop rode at anchor. Beneath the Club Nautico pennant at the stern was its name: Halcyon. Police exclusion tapes looped along its rails, falling into the water where they drifted like streamers from a forgotten party.

This acuteness also applies to his perceptions of people.

As his eyes searched the sky over the town I noticed that he was looking everywhere but at the Hollinger house. His natural aloofness shaded into some unhappy emotion that I could only glimpse around the bony corners of his face.

That feels acute to me, and original. Very simple vocabulary, but conveying a way of perceiving new to most of us. Only prose fiction can do this, surprise us in this way.

Ballard’s sardonic vision of ex-pat communities

The whole narrative is premised on the idea that the ex-pat communities along the Mediterranean have a special atmosphere of zombified inanition. Sometimes Ballard describes this with the seriousness that the premise of a fable requires, but other times he is wonderfully acute and funny at describing the strange limbo world of these kind of over-heated ex-pat resorts. He doesn’t hold back:

While a young Frenchwoman topped up my tank I strolled past the supermarket that shared the forecourt,where elderly women in fluffy towelling suits drifted like clouds along the lines of ice-cold merchandise. I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds -British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations…

The retirement pueblos lay by the motorway, embalmed in a dream of the sun from which they would never awake. As always, when I drove along the coast to Marbella, I seemed to be moving through a zone that was fully accessible only to a neuroscientist, and scarcely at all to a travel writer. The white facades of the villas and apartment houses were like blocks of time that had crystallised beside the road. Here on the Costa del Sol nothing would ever happen again, and the people of the pueblos were already the ghosts of themselves…

Estrella de Mar seemed a place without shadows, its charms worn as openly as the bare breasts of the women of all ages who sunbathed at the Club Nautico. Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

Via his characters, Ballard can be even more forthright in his opinions:

‘Have you seen the pueblos along the coast? Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door…’

Charles is more detached and analytical – he is, after all, a writer by profession – but is given the same point of view:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…

Empty pools and full pools

One symbolic way of indicating the difference between Ballard’s pre-Empire of the Sun fiction and the novels he wrote after that catharsis, is that, in all his pre-Empire stories and novels, the swimming pools are drained and empty; in all the post-Empire stories, the swimming pools are filled to the brim, reflecting the bright blue Mediterranean sky, and denoting a world of timeless, affectless plenty.

Weaknesses

It’s hard not to notice Ballard’s use of a deliberately limited descriptive vocabulary, a very restricted number of moods or gestures which all the characters display, as if they are androids with about five settings. This lexical narrowness bespeaks, indicates and enacts a sort of emotional and cognitive narrowness in his characters.

People are always needing to be ‘calmed’, because something is ‘unsettling’ or over-exciting them; many of the characters or situations are described almost from the start as ‘deranged’ or ‘demented’; the narrator does no end of ‘sensing’, ‘sensing’ that people know more than they let on, ‘sensing’ that he is unwelcome, ‘sensing’ that characters really mean this or that secret motive.

Calm

  • Paula tried to calm me, sitting me in the leather armchair and putting a cushion behind my head…
  • Cabrera watched me from the door, restraining Paula when she tried to calm me…
  • She turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • Before I could remonstrate with her she turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • ‘Now, sit down and try to calm yourself,’ Sanger steered me from the garden door, whose handle I was trying to turn, concerned for my overexcited state…
  • One of them touched my cheek, as if calming a child…
  • Trying to calm myself, I sipped Frank’s whisky and listened to the shrieks and laughter as the sun came up over the sea…
  • I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.

Demented/deranged

  • I remembered the disagreeable Guardia Civil at Gibraltar and speculated that the fire had been started by a deranged Spanish policeman protesting at Britain’s occupation of the Rock.
  • Andersson stood astride the grave, spade held across his chest like a jousting pole, glaring in a deranged way at the psychiatrist.
  • Repeated cleanings had blurred the pigments, and the triptych of garage, windows and door resembled the self-accusing effort of a deranged Expressionist painter
  • The bedrooms were daubed with graffiti, a riot of black and silver whorls, a demented EEG trace searching for a brain
  • As Laurie Fox screamed in her demented way, spitting out the blood she had sucked into her mouth, Sanger seized her around the waist.
  • In the soil scattered from the plant tubs a demented geometer had set out the diagram of a bizarre dance of death…

Unsettled

  • ‘You’ve unsettled a great many people since you arrived, understandably so…’
  • His talk of re-opening the case unsettled me…
  • The frankness of her erotic response, the unashamed way in which she used her sex, seemed to unsettle Crawford..
  • I fingered the plastic sachet, tempted to help myself to this forgotten cache, but I was too unsettled by the visit to the Hollinger house
  • The testy humour, and the edgy manner of someone unsettled by standing more than a few seconds in front of a mirror, would have appealed to Frank…
  • Cabrera hesitated before getting into his car, unsettled by my change of tack
  • Crawford sat forward, speaking quietly as if not wanting to unsettle the silence.

Sensed

He uses the phrase ‘Already I…’ to convey the sense that something is creeping up on the narrator, that things are overtaking him, that things are moving at pace…

  • Already I sensed that she was looking on me with more favour, for whatever reasons of her own…
  • Already I sensed that I was being kept under surveillance…
  • Already I could sense the freedom that this intimate world would have given to Alice Hollinger…

Narrowness and repetition

Obviously we all have restricted vocabularies, our own idiolects (‘the speech habits peculiar to a particular person’) and Ballard is a very clever, self-aware writer.

Sol much so that I wonder whether the repetition of actions, of moods and of the relatively small range of words that he uses to describe them is deliberate – that he accepts the same narrow set of words which suggest themselves as he writes, because doing this adds to the stylisation of the text. That the repetitions not only of plot, but of specific words and phrases, adds to the sense of stylisation which accompanied, in the old days, coronations and religious rituals, and in our media age, define the camera angles and gestures of movie actors.

So that when the any of the other characters tell Charles to ‘calm’ himself, we remember Jim in Empire of the Sun continually being told by the adults to calm down. When the narrator remembers his father sparring with the Saudi police and so ‘unsettling’ his mother, we remember all the other Ballard characters who have been ‘unsettled’ by a drowned world, crystallising forests, the inhabitants of high rises killing each other, and so on.

This narrowness of plotting, and the narrowness of vocabulary, are central issues in critiquing Ballard’s work.

Running Wild is about a luxury gated community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Cocaine Nights is about a luxury ex-pat community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Super-Cannes is about a luxury business park for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Is the repetition of the same basic plot, told in prose which heavily features the same stylised attitudes and words (unsettle, calm, deranged) a bad thing or a good thing? Does the repetition of ideas and phrases cumulatively build up a powerful vision of the world?

Or feel like the repetition of a writer who’s lost inspiration? I think it’s more the former, that the hammering away of the same vocabulary is like a miner hammering away at a coal seam underground, relentlessly chipping away at the same pressure point to try and achieve a breakthrough into a new way of seeing.

Ballard’s improbable dialogue

Dialogue in thrillers is always pat, neat and snappy. Think of any of the classic American writers, Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. By this late stage in his career Ballard had evolved his own version of this stagey dialogue in which characters don’t speak like hard-boiled gangsters but like lecturers in media studies, all very savvy and smart about Freud and Fellini. Here’s Crawford the tennis coach talking to Charles the narrator about his brother, Frank:

He stared at the air with his arms raised to the sky, as if waiting for a sympathetic genie to materialize out of the spiralling dust.
‘Charles, I know. What’s going on? This is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho. You’ve talked to him?’
‘Of course. He insists he’s guilty. Why?’
‘No one knows. We’re all racking our brains. I think it’s Frank playing his strange games again, like those peculiar chess problems he’s always making up. King to move and mate in one, though this time there are no other pieces on the board and he has to mate himself.’

‘This is Kafka reshot in the style of Psycho‘ and then moving on to make comparisons with chess games. Do you think anyone, anywhere has ever spoken like that, let alone a professional tennis coach?

Here’s Charles sparring with nervous Dr Paul Hamilton.

‘Besides, my patients need me. Someone has to wean them off the Valium and Mogadon, teach them how to face the day without a bottle and a half of vodka.’
‘So what Joan of Arc was to the English soldiery you are to the pharmaceutical industry?’

Has anyone ever said something is sharp and snappy as that to you? Here’s Charles talking to Inspector Cabrera:

‘Inspector, when I meet Frank I’ll say that I’ve seen the house. If he knows I’ve been here he’ll realize how absurd his confession is. The idea that he’s guilty is preposterous.’
Cabrera seemed disappointed in me. ‘It’s possible, Mr Prentice. Guilt is so flexible, it’s a currency that changes hands . . . each time losing a little value.’

Ah, the literary policeman as philosopher. Here’s Charles with Dr Hamilton, again:

‘Who is he exactly?’
‘Not even Bobby Crawford knows that. He’s three different people before breakfast. Every morning he takes his personalities out of the wardrobe and decides which one he’ll wear for the day.’

Snappy. Or:

As we stood together I placed my hand on her breast, my index finger following the blue vein that rose to the surface of her sunburnt skin before descending into the warm deeps below her nipple. She watched me uncritically, curious to see what I would do next. Without moving my hand from her breast, she said: ‘Charles, this is your doctor speaking. You’ve had enough stress for one day.’
‘Would making love to you be very stressful?’
‘Making love to me is always stressful. Quite a few men in Estrella de Mar would confirm that. I don’t want to visit the cemetery again.’
‘Next time I’m there I’ll read the epitaphs. Is it full of your lovers, Paula?’
‘One or two. As they say, doctors can bury their mistakes.’

Boom boom, as artful as Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton. Here’s Charles interviewing Andersson the boat repair man:

‘You don’t like looking at the Hollinger house, do you?’
‘I don’t like looking at anything, Mr Prentice. I dream in Braille.’

It’s all as slick and stylised as the dialogue in a Noel Coward play, mingled with a pleasant stream of sub-Wildean paradoxes.

‘Money, sex, drugs. What else is there these days? Outside Estrella de Mar no one gives a damn about the arts. The only real philosophers left are the police.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘Selfish men make the best lovers. They’re prepared to invest in the woman’s pleasure so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘The arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.’ (Dr Sanger)

This whip-smart repartee mixes oddly with Ballard’s very limited set of emotional responses, and then again with the off-hand references to hard drugs or kiddie-porn or BDSM sex. It’s an odd combination.


Ballard’s erroneous futurology

‘Everything comes sooner these days. The future rushes towards us like a tennis player charging the net.’ (The psychiatrist Irwin Sanger)

Ballard is routinely trotted out as a ‘prophet’ or ‘futurologist’, but this strikes me as plain wrong.

Cocaine Nights obsessively repeats the idea that the enclaves of bored wealthy ex-pats along the Costa del Sol somehow indicate what the future will be like:

  • Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…
  • ‘Frank always claimed that Estrella de Mar is what the future will be like…’
  • ‘In Estrella de Mar, like everywhere in the future, crimes have no motives…’
  • ‘I talked to Sanger the other day – he thinks we’re the prototype of all the leisure communities of the future…’
  • ‘Charles, this is the way the world is going. You’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work or play. The Costasols of this planet are spreading outwards. I’ve toured them in Florida and New Mexico. You should visit the Fontainebleau Sud complex outside Paris – it’s a replica of this, ten times the size. The Residencia Costasol wasn’t thrown together by some gimcrack developer; it was carefully planned to give people the chance of a better life. And what have they got? Brain-death…’
  • ‘It’s Europe‘s future. Everywhere will be like this soon…’

At its bluntest, here is Dr Sanger lecturing Charles:

‘Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.’
‘A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.’

Has anything more inaccurate and misleading ever been written? This is spectacularly wrong, isn’t it? Ballard was reading from a script first devised in the 1970s, which looked forward to a utopian leisure society in which we’d all struggle to fill our countless hours of pampered idleness. Is that what happened? No. The exact opposite has happened:

Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result. Time poverty has also been coined as a noun for the phenomenon. (Wikipedia)

Spending day after day with nothing to do is not really an accurate portrait of Britain in 2020. Do you feel like you live in ‘a leisure-dominated future’? Plus, this whole discussion only takes place among the moneyed bourgeoisie. Most normal people are having to work harder than ever to make ends meet.

More women are in the workforce not because of abstract principles of ‘equality’ but because they’ve been forced to go to work to supplement their husband’s wages. More people than ever before are working on zero hours contracts. All the articles I read are about how work has invaded people’s ‘leisure’ hours, their evenings and weekends because work emails, texts and documents are now sent to people’s personal devices 24/7. And that’s before you get to the dire condition of the underclass, which I was reading about recently.

A few numbers: In 2014 the officially registered population of British nationals in Spain was 236,669, let’s call it 240,000. In 2014 the UK population numbered about 65 million. So British ex-pats in Spain make up less than 0.4% of the UK population. Hardly at the cutting edge of British social trends.

And even more obviously, this kind of thing is highly Eurocentric – it describes a world of overwhelmingly white chaps and chapesses from the professional classes who are all very comfortably off, thank you very much – Estrella de Mar is full of retired bank managers and accountants and doctors and property developers. What has come to be referred to by their impoverished children as the ‘boomers’.

As a vision of the future of the entire world it is obviously flawed for the simple reason that it totally omits, not only most of the population of European countries, but the whole of the rest of the world. A moment’s reflection on the condition of the population of either China or India (combined populations 2.75 billion people) suggests that the future of the planet is not one of luxury resorts offering a wide range of sports activities…

Ballard’s view of the future. My view of the present

Ballard’s vision of an affluent society where the well-off retire at 30 and have so much time on their hands that they take to drugs and murder to spice up their lives is plausible enough when you read it, as is much science fiction or genre fiction.

But the moment you start seriously thinking about it, you realise it is a ludicrously out-of-touch fantasy. The kind of thing only a writer – a person who spends almost all their time at home, staring out of windows, or meeting other like-minded middle class types – could conceive of, and that only academics who’ve spent a lifetime reading about transgressive sex and literary tropes, but who have precious little knowledge of international affairs, geopolitics, environmental or population trends, could take seriously.

This is a clever, very educated and very literary book, with an enormous amount of pleasure to be had from Ballard’s often inspired way with language and his endless stream of acute insights and vivid turns of phrase.

And yet the social vision at the heart of the narrative felt to me curiously dated, remote and out of touch with the actual world the rest of us live in, and are going to live in.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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