I must first confess that this is the first Ballard novel I’ve read since 1979’s The Unlimited Dream Company. Perhaps a journey through the books between this and Super-Cannes would have prepared me for his current stance, which I was mildly surprised to find had a much more overt moral component than I’d previously noticed.
That’s not to say his earlier work is out-and-out ‘immoral’—perhaps not even ‘amoral’, although this is the most generous that his critics used to get. It’s obvious from the Re/Search book on Ballard (which, if it can be considered one of his works, is my favourite) that he has a very powerful moral sense, only one that is coupled to an unflinching Freudian-surrealist passion for facing the unconscious on its own terms.
Here, though, we’re a step removed from the plunge into creative pathology. This is not a criticism, however. I’m fascinated to see Ballard for aiming his guns directly at a target (unbridled corporate power) rather than firing just to explore the possibilities—it’s just not what I expected.
The novel’s protagonist, Paul Sinclair, is an aviation magazine editor recuperating from a crash (Ballard’s not changed that much then!) who arrives with his young wife at her new job in Eden-Olympia, a utopian business park built near Cannes to house some of the world’s most powerful corporations. The familiar Ballardian roguish psychopomp comes in the form of Wilder Penrose, the park’s resident psychiatrist. Penrose—like nearly everyone else—is reluctant to say much about the recent spree-killing conducted by the former occupant of the Sinclairs’ new house, who was killed in the process…
Paul, bored by the pool with his injured leg, becomes slowly but powerfully obsessed by the spree-killer’s actions and motives. (I’m reminded of Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound amateur sleuth in Rear Window, but of course Ballard’s less interested in the injury’s connotations of impotence, as Hitchcock was, than in the character’s fascination with brutal incidents and acts, and the fetish value of surgical restraints.) He gradually uncovers a secret world of proto-fascist violence beneath the hyper-efficient work regime of Eden-Olympia, and, largely through the dominating influence of Wilder Penrose, becomes embroiled. But Paul struggles to maintain a measure of distance, forming a tension that drives the narrative, between fascination with the nearly consequence-free release of repressed urges, and shocked indignation at callous violence and perversity.
The seductive logic behind these covert eruptions of brutality is detailed in a riveting cod-philosophical conversation between Penrose and Sinclair. But the moral dimension to this work is foregrounded from the beginning, where we learn of the idea that Eden-Olympia, seen as an experiment in future living, was constructed with the intention of eliminating the need for moral choice in its inhabitants. Everything is automated, looked after, watched over, designed. The unquestioned and inexorable drive for more and more streamlined economic efficiency leaves in its wake confused people with a waning capacity for making difficult choices about what to do with their mounting wealth and power.
Certainly not one of Ballard’s best, but seeing the poet laureate of suburban alienation peel back the layers of deceit around our unelected techno-lords is fascinating at the very least.