Thin white line
J. G. Ballard’s latest novel Cocaine Nights is a murder mystery with a dark heart. The maverick English novelist tells Damien Love about his fears for a society hemmed in by its own paranoia — and how that paranoia is preventing him from reaching a cinema audience.
ocaine Nights, the latest novel by .l. G. Ballard. might. on a superﬁcial level. be ﬁled under Mystery. Ccntring around a basic plot premise Agatha Christie might have devised, its form is far removed from Ballard’s customary explorations of inner space.
The plot concerns five murders committed in the ex-pat community of Estrella de Mar on the Costa Del Sol. Travel writer Charles Prentice arrives on the scene, only to discover that his brother Frank. manager of the leisure club which dominates the community, has been arrested for the crimes. Although no-one. including the police. actually believes Frank is responsible. bizarrely he remains determined to plead guilty.
But the story of Prentice’s search for a murderer — as might be expected from the author of such fables of transgression and alienation as Concrete Island and Crash — bears the same relation to the book’s real themes as the skull does to the subconscious.
The whodunnit. it appears, is merely a frame for the author’s bigger picture. With customary wariness of social trends. Ballard explains: ‘Watching the growth of the Costa Del Sol and similar places along the Mediterranean and in the States over the last 40 years. I think we’re seeing a microcosm of a future waiting for us all.’ he says. ‘As you drive along the coast, you pass all these condominiums. and think, they’re a bit odd. But you don’t realise how odd until you go into one. Tens of thousands of Brits, Dutch. French and Germans — retired there permanently — are living very strange lives. These security-obsessed enclaves with telesurveillance. armed guards and smart cards. like a maximum-security state reduced to the size of a village . . .
‘l’m interested in an emerging psychology where people — for the sake of security — are willing to sacrifice the stresses and strains that are the price one pays for an active and lively cultural mix. One gets this strangely interiorised style of living, where you switch off the outside world like it was some threatening television programme.’
Unlike the retirement complexes which surround it, however, Estrella do Mar does not exist in this ossiﬁed state Ballard describes as ‘Kalka with unlimited chicken Kiev’. Instead, it is a haven of cultural and sporting activity — by day at any rate. The reasons for this, as Prentice discovers, lie beneath the civilised veneer, in the
‘l’m interested in an emerging psychology where you switch otf the outside world like it was some threatening television programme.’
gights of the title, an underworld of crime, drugs and illicit sex, orchestrated by a kind of deviant messiah. ls the author suggesting a radical prescription, whereby crime is necessary to kick-start a culture?
‘Well, I’m not inviting anyone to come and burgle my house,’ he replies. ‘l’m just saying, beware of extreme solutions. Maybe you need some grit in the shell to make a pearl. One always assumes that totalitarian states will be imposed on the average citizen from the outside; they’ ll be horriﬁc and threatening — but I’ve often thought the totalitarian systems of the future will actually be kind of subservient and ingratiating, and imposed from within. Treble- locking your front door, switching on the alarm, and retreating to watch videos of the World Cup - that’s not a good recipe for a healthy society.
‘Looked at objectively, one could say the visual arts and entertainment culture are in a worse state than they’ve been this century. Cinema is a shadow of what it was in the 40s. There’s scarcely a novelist worth reading, a painter worth looking at. I’m too old to know if the music scene has the same vitality it had in the 605, but I don’t imagine that it has. We’re in a culture of substitutes. They . had Marilyn Monroe — we’ve , ’ got Elizabeth Hurley.’ ‘
There are exceptions, of course. Ballard is one of the few people in the country to have seen David Cronenberg’s adaptation of his novel Crash,
still awaiting certiﬁcatioy by the censors. /
‘lt’s a brilliant ﬁlm, an absolute masterpiece,’ he says. ‘But I don’t know whether we’re
mature enough to cope with such a ﬁlm. I think the
Powers That Be feel it may give us a rush of blood to the head. There’ll be a huge outcry, and hundreds of over-
J. G. BALLARD FEATURE
excited drivers will start crashing their cars into each other. It doesn’t seem to have happened in France [where Crash was the top-grossing ﬁlm the week it opened].’
The circumstances echo those surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s notorious ﬁlm of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In the same way. Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash is deemed too much for the source material’s native country to handle. Although he remains conﬁdent that the ﬁlm will eventually see the light of day, Ballard has his own feelings about
.the suppression of his material.
‘We’re far too nervous,’ he says. ‘So panicky. We’re at a strange cultural stage where if some ghastly tragedy like the Dunblanc disaster or Hungerford happens, people feel that there must be an explanation. and so they ﬁnd the obvious culprits. look for desperate remedies to make sense, but it’s often the wrong way.
‘So many of the ﬁlms we see are heavily cut. particularly on video. We’re very heavily censored here. People are frightened. Of course, it’s all bound up in the whole political system here - “You can’t give the plebs too much freedom in one direction, because they might start asking for it in another. Who knows where it will all end?” — you know.’
Chicken Kiev, anyone?
Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard is published by
Flamingo on Thurs 19 Sept at £16.99 (hardback).
.l. B. Ballard: peering behind the perimeter fence
The List 20 Sept-3 Oct [9961'