- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

By J.G. Ballard
Picador/USA, $24.95, 400 pages

In "The Third Man," Carol Reed's film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, Orson Welles, playing the glib, sociopathic black marketer Harry Lime, realizes (soon after the justly famous ferris wheel ride) that his attempt to corrupt his old friend, a native American writer played by Joseph Cotton, has been less than successful. Lime leaves his young friend with the observation that "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
Harry Lime's cynical view of history, as abhorrent as it is true, is familiar to readers of J.G. Ballard's fiction because some of his characters share Lime's self-serving historical consciousness. The always amazing, ever disturbing Mr. Ballard has made significant contributions to several genres, ranging from science fiction to autobiography. His new novel "Super-Cannes," while similar in some ways to its immediate predecessor "Cocaine Nights," reworks the traditional "whodunit" into a philosophical examination of the mystery as a critique of corporate society, its mentality, its amorality. The first paragraph of this unsettling novel deserves to be quoted in full:
"The first person I met at Eden-Olympia was a psychiatrist, and in many ways it seems only too apt that my guide to this 'intelligent' city in the hills above Cannes should have been a specialist in mental disorders. I realize now that a kind of waiting madness, like a state of undeclared war, haunted the office buildings of the business park. For most of us, Dr. Wilder Penrose was our amiable Prospero, the psycho pomp who steered our darkest dreams toward the daylight. I remember his eager smile when we greeted each other, and the evasive eyes that warned me away from his outstretched hand. Only when I learned to admire this flawed and dangerous man was I able to think of killing him."
How many words in this tightly-wound passage jump out at us, seek to make us receptive to what follows? What are we to make of, say, "mental disorders," "waiting madness," "darkest dreams"? Should we begin to feel as if we are about to take a giant step through Alice's looking-glass? Alice roams elusively through this novel, as does her creator Charles Dodgson and his photographs of young girls. And what do we make of Mr. Ballard's chilling last sentence?
As most modern readers know, the beginnings of good books give us clues (baited hooks that they are), some to be deduced as the story unfolds, some red herrings designed to distract us. The opening of "Super-Cannes" neatly sets us up, introduces the antagonist, Dr. Wilder Penrose, and the narrator reliable or not, it remains to be seen Paul Sinclair, a naive pilot who, because of a botched takeoff, has lost his license and the full use of a knee. We seem to sense that madness and mayhem will rule. We feel the power of an "amiable Prospero" who, we learn, tries to create a perfect system in which human nature is "explained" and controlled, and Ariels and Calibans do the bidding of the master magician, the ultimate puppeteer.
Paul Sinclair accompanies his wife Jane, a pediatrician, to Eden-Olympia (a nice ironic yoking of two utopian myths) where she will replace David Greenwood, an old friend who committed suicide (or did he?) after slaughtering 10 of his co-workers (or did he?). Useless in an environment where work is pleasure, idleness mind-numbingly boring, Sinclair decides to spend his time discovering the truth behind Dr. Greenwood's rampage. His quest leads to a self-discovery, to a sense of what justice remains in a world where lip service paid to an abstraction replaces action.
Eden-Olympia is a corporate park where multinational companies exist in a secure mini-city, where business goals can be met without the distractions life outside the compound's gates offers. Self-contained, and well-policed by a Gestapo-like security force, Eden-Olympia seethes with sameness, with ennui alleviated not by traditional leisure-time activities, but by secret experiments in coordinated violence.
Sinclair, as nosey as any good detective, is attracted to and repulsed by what he discovers as he follows leads, interviews Greenwood's associates, weighs the evidence, including that planted by those manipulating him, and forms certain conclusions that seem to explain events up to and including Greenwood's killing spree, as well as what might have driven a seemingly well liked and sane doctor to murder. As Sinclair learns what "evil lurks in the hearts of men," we see that the order envisioned by Dr. Penrose is built on racism, drugs, perversion, blood sport and murder.
At he helm, Penrose, who in one of his attempts to lure Sinclair in to the heart of darkness, tells him that the "The Adolph Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks." Penrose believes that to alleviate the boredom of time away from work, periods of strictly controlled violence, as absurd as that sounds, are needed to prevent insanity.
Insane actions, Penrose holds, are needed to preserve sanity. He plans organizes, and executes gang-like raids, resulting in harassments, theft, torture and murder, in which corporate leaders indulge their need for excitement. The "amiable Prospero" experiments on his colleagues, tests the limits of their perversity. He seems to want to prove what Mr. Ballard wrote in "The Atrocity Exhibition," that "violence is the conceptualization of pain … psychology is the conceptual system of sex."
Readers of Mr. Ballard's novel "Crash," or viewers of David Cronenberg's infamous film adaptation, will recall how jarring his vatic stance can be. Sinclair almost succumbs to his Prospero's twisted logic. He moves from one scene of primitive violence to another, going so far in his pursuit of Greenwood's secrets that he participates in several of the "raids" made by the thrill-seekers who leave the protection of Eden-Olympia to attack minorities, prostitutes, immigrants and homosexuals while the police turn a blind eye because the victims exist on the fringes of society while the perpetrators are the elite. "Meaningless violence," one of dystopia's power brokers says, "is the true poetry of the new millennium."
"Super-Cannes" is a skillfully written literary exploration of the horrors a rage for order might engender. What happens to Paul Sinclair and his wife, to Wilder Penrose and his experiments, and to Eden-Olympia will surprise some readers. Each page, and this is a page-turner, might have the mind's knees knocking, the mind's flesh horripilating. "Super-Cannes" is that type of art that confirms J.G. Ballard's substantial place in contemporary fiction.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic living in Pottsville, Penna

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