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J G Ballard: Super-Cannes

If there is any better writer in Britain in the early years of the new millennium, I have yet to discover him/her. This novel shows why. It probably wasn’t a huge stretch for Ballard but, in it, not only does he tell a good story but he effectively psychoanalyzes the entire twentieth-first century and exposes our psychoses and how they are going to change us and the world over the coming years.

Paul Sinclair is a relatively normal former RAF pilot. He crashes his plane (before take-off), injuring his knee and leading to his flying licence being suspended. The doctor who looks at his knee – Jane – is a young-looking, chain-smoking hippie. They fall in love and get married. Jane is offered a job in a huge new medical complex – Eden-Olympia – near Cannes and, as they have nothing to stop them, she takes it. Employees are treated like kings – luxurious houses with swimming pools, all mod cons and, of course, high security. Jane works – everyone is a workaholic – while Paul hangs out. There is one blot on the good name of Eden-Olympia. Jane is replacing David Greenwood, a doctor whom she knew in London (and with whom she may have had a brief affair.) Greenwood died after killing seven top executives at Eden-Olympia and then three hostages he had taken. No-one seems to know why he behaved the way he did as everyone knew him as a decent person, who helped out at a shelter for immigrant waifs and strays, reading them Alice in Wonderland.

With nothing much else to do and living in Greenwood’s former house, Paul takes it upon himself to find out what really happened. He is helped by one of the security staff, Halder, who, as a black, feels someone left out of the system but still needs his job. Wilder Penrose, the in-house psychiatrist, may or may not be an ally. He is also helped by the head of the real estate office, Frances Baring, who was Greenwood’s lover. What he finds is that there is clearly a culture of violence at Eden-Olympia – indeed, many of the senior male staff get their kicks by violence, usually by beating up the local immigrants. Gradually – and Ballard builds this up so well – we learn that this is just not a few psychopaths getting their kicks but a major psychosocial experiment, fully condoned and organized by Eden Olympia and other leading companies. Indeed, Ballard skillfully reveals not only that for all of us (particularly but not exclusively men) – Paul included – violence is something we both relish and need (hardly a major revelation) but that it is an essential part of our health and well-being. In finally finding out what motivated Greenwood, he finds out what might motivate many of us.

Of course, Paul turns out not to be the knight in shining armour we might have expected him to be as he, too, has a dark side, even though he eventually does confront his demons and come clean. What Ballard does so well is show us how those people we would tend to think of as decent and respectable – ourselves, in many cases – are the most depraved and how all of us, despite ourselves, are changing our standards of morality and are becoming as cold-blooded and ruthless as any Nazi.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by HarperCollins