Super-Cannes by J. G. Ballard

Picador 2001 400 pp. 25.00

Copyright © 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 junior. 

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   There “representative democracy had been replaced by the surveillance camera and the private police force.”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 purportedly occurred.

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.