I was greatly saddened by J. G. Ballard’s death, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it, and him, until now. I am sorry that there will not be anything more; but Ballard did live to be 78, and he left us a lot of extraordinary works.
Lots of people wrote about his great works of the 1960s and 1970s, like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, Concrete Island, and High Rise. But I’d like to call attention, as well, and in particular, to Ballard’s four last novels — Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) — which still have not received quite the attention they deserve. These books are closely related (although they are all narratively independent of one another), and stand apart from Ballard’s other work. For one thing, they are all set in the present, in decidedly non-exotic settings, and even without the extreme “pathologies” that are the subject of so many of Ballard’s other books. They all tell relatively humdrum stories; they are detective narratives without much mystery — or for which the only mysterious thing is the relative obtuseness of the narrators, who are all rather plodding and take much longer to figure out what is going on than the reader does. And in each case, what is really going on is some form of “transgression”, or sacrificial violence, that actually serves the deeper purpose of shoring up the capitalist-consumerist social order.
Each novel focuses on a different social class in today’s UK. Cocaine Nights is about middle-aged, middle-management Brits (and Germans) who have taken early retirement and moved to condo communities on the Spanish Costa del Sol in order to enjoy a life of leisure; Super-Cannes has to do with high-level business executives (largely British, but including the elites of many countries) working in a high-tech “industrial park”-cum-”managed community” on the Riviera; Millennium People focuses on upper-middle-class professionals living in condos in relatively swanky (but not super-rich) London neighborhoods; and Kingdom Come on lower-middle-class suburbanites in the ring of outer suburbs surrounding London (which is where Ballard himself lived).
In all four novels, some sort of community is sanctified, or at least solidified, by acts of violence. The retirees of Cocaine Nights are drawn together by a collective act and pact of murder, a sort of Rene-Girardian substitutive sacrifice; their shared guilt releases them from unstated anxieties, and allows them instead to enjoy their “creativity” (which Ballard describes mostly in the form of cornball arts-and-crafts activities, like amateur theater productions of Beckett and Pinter plays, and homemade sculptures for sale in local boutique galleries). The business executives of Super-Cannes get “therapeutic” release from the stress of their demanding, 24/7 jobs, and from their boredom with the usual bourgeois transgressions of adultery and drug use, which don’t give them frissons of naughtiness any more, by organizing themselves into fascist paramilitary gangs that beat, torture, and murder North African immigrants and “guest workers.” The professionals of Millennium People rise up in mildly nihilistic rebellion against the programmed sameness and continual stress of their lives, by trashing their own possessions, and other symbols of consumer culture, as well as by engaging in more destructive acts of terrorist bombing — all of which only has the effect of making their consumerist lives more bearable. Finally, the blue-collar suburbanites of Kingdom Come develop a kind of fascist cult based around shopping at the mall, rooting for their favorite football (i.e. soccer) teams, and (again) beating up and killing South Asian and Eastern European immigrants. In all four novels, violent “rebellions” are really sorts of stimulants to get the capitalist order on track again — the business execs are enabled to be more focused and vicious in their corporate planning, and the consumers get stimulated to buy again, despite (as well as because of) their boredom with what they have already purchased.
In all four novels, the narrator is an outsider: an older, fussy, and — I am not sure how to describe this with the proper degree of irony — somewhat insufficiently “virile” man, who eventually finds himself becoming complicit (to a greater or lesser degree) with the violence that originally puzzled and disturbed him, and the crimes that he initially (and naively) had hoped to “solve.” All of these narrators are almost parodies of Ballard himself, with his perpetual stand as an outside observer of all the perversities and entropic processes of decay that are his perpetual subjects. Ballard always wrote with an odd sort of clinical detachment; and this detachment was not a cover for, or defense against, his evident fascination with all the weirdnesses he wrote about, so much as it was a perfect expression of that fascination. Detachment is the best manner in which to approach experiences of dissociation and self-detachment; Ballard’s pseudo-clinical prose is a way to diagnose the “pathologies” of contemporary culture without thereby implying any norm or healthful state to which those pathologies might be opposed, or in respect to which they could be denounced as deviant. It’s a way to avoid the moral revulsion of the self-righteous satirist, to suspend the revulsion or outrage with which readers might be prone to arm themselves in order to think that what they are reading applies only to others, not to themselves. This tone was a constant in all of Ballard’s writings — there was never that great a difference between his first-person narratives (like Crash) and his third-person ones (like High Rise). But I think that the position of the Ballardian narrative voice is itself dramatized on a meta-level in these four last novels, to a greater extent than was ever the case before. I see this as a deepening of Ballard’s analytical focus. He grants his narrative voice a degree of agency, precisely (and only) to show that agency is itself a hollow fiction.
In any case, the four final novels all turn upon the narrators’ reactions to the violence that they belatedly discover. These reactions range from actively joining in, and trying to lead and shape, a fascist rebellion (in Kingdom Come) to plotting acts of counter-violence as an expression of moral revulsion, in order to make the statement that this must stop (in Super-Cannes). Of course, none of these narrators’ gestures are successful, or even adequate to the situations they are responding to. “The suburbs dream of violence” (opening line of Kingdom Come), of a vast convulsion which the imagine as a purgative or transformational Event. Ballard’s great subject, in his final four novels, is the hollowness of this dream, the emptiness and inevitable disappointment of any fidelity to the Event, every bit as much as of any loyalty to the ruling order. This is the way that Ballard remains unassimilable (despite the reverential treatment that he received in death from portions of the literary Establishment, such as it is, or from fans of Steven Spielberg). He casts a bleak light upon any naive optimism and hope for change (but what optimism or hope for change is not “naive”?); while at the same time corrosively destroying any sort of faith in rational norms or in the worthiness of the ruling order. His fiction is equally antagonistic to utopian idealizations, and to those (all-too-common) disgustingly fatalistic assertions that There Is No Alternative, or that the Eternal Human Tragedy is something that we must bravely and grimly bear. [Though he did write one sort-of utopia: an odd and somewhat neglected novel, The Unlimited Dream Company]. The only (very slender) hope that his novels offer is a hope in the value in itself of a disillusioned and demystified clarity of regard — one that his narrators in these last four novels do not themselves attain, but that the attentive reader just might get to. Even the narrator of Kingdom Come, who more than flirts with fascism, ends with the warning that the nightmare of violence that works to reproduce the very social order and social hierarchies against which it is a protest will recur, “unless the sane woke and rallied themselves.” I don’t think that the narrator himself can be included in this “sane,” but the phrase points to the way that Ballard still clings (rightly) to a kind of Enlightenment ideal, even as he tracks the horrific legacy of what Adorno and Horkheimer were perhaps too narrow to call “instrumental reason.” Ballard is (if anything) far bleaker than Adorno, but he’s also refreshingly free of Adorno’s high-European snobbery. I would want to argue, finally, that Ballard was a greater social theorist than Adorno, or than such contemporary sociological diagnostians of postmodernity as Bauman, Beck, Giddens, or Castells. And Ballard was a great social theorist not in spite of, nor even in addition to, but precisely because of, his aestheticism, or the fact that he was writing novels rather than engaging in empirical research. His four final novels really only deal with a small corner of Europe, and not with the rest of the world. But they rigorously anatomize, and shock us into a deeper awareness of, the social nightmare that, if alien to most of the world’s population, is nonetheless hegemonic over them.