Novel of the week

Super-Cannes

J G Ballard <em>Flamingo, 392pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0002258471

Seventy-odd years ago, Paul Valery wrote that Europe aspires to being ruled by an American Commission. As seen by Europeans, Americans have learnt nothing from history - even their own. For that very reason, we look to the United States for deliverance from the compulsively repeated conflicts of our history. For nearly every European, America is the future.

In fact, the US has become a rear-view mirror in which we catch a glimpse of the past. The future is rising up around us - in the science parks and discreetly gated communities that house corporations more advanced than any to be found in the US. Because it has none of the wired frenzy of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, the emergence of Europe's hyper-modern capitalism has gone almost unremarked by cultural and political commentators. Fixated on images of American excess, they have failed to notice the subtler and more coolly intelligent business culture that is remaking Europe.

In Super-Cannes, J G Ballard presents a clairvoyantly lucid vision of what the future will be like. Ballard has moved on from the ragged Conradian landscapes and suburban wastelands of his earlier novels, and the terrain explored in Super-Cannes is more reminiscent of his previous book, Cocaine Nights. The setting, "Eden-Olympia", is a business community purpose-built just above Cannes, in which the corporate elite can be insulated from the messy, contingent world beyond the perimeter gates.

The book's main protagonist, Paul Sinclair, arrives in Eden-Olympia with his wife, Jane, who has taken a post as a doctor there. What he finds is a community that has dispensed with the normal infrastructures of human interaction. Surveillance cameras and security guards have replaced the daily exchanges that sustained social life in the past; and in this gated community, there is nothing to distract the residents from the demands of their work. Secluded in this eminently rational environment, the inhabitants of Eden-Olympia seem supremely well adjusted. Yet Sinclair discovers that the villa in which he and his young wife are housed used to be occupied by someone involved in a massacre of senior executives. He finds himself drawn into an investigation of sudden episodes of seemingly random violence, which have ruffled the tranquil surface of this ideal business community.

Just as, in early novels, Ballard deployed the conventions of science fiction to subvert normal understandings of the present, so in Super-Cannes he uses the devices of crime fiction to accomplish a sardonic subversion of the rationality of society.

Sinclair's enquiries lead him into a world in which psychopathology is a medicine prescribed in the treatment of boredom. The privileged inhabitants of Eden-Olympia are supplied with a cornucopia of drugs and pornography. Moreover, as part of that therapy programme, the community's psychologist, Wilder Penrose, arranges opportunities for them to take part in rapes and savage beatings. The sanity of Eden-Olympia's residents is maintained by regular, carefully calibrated doses of madness.

Ballard is often viewed as a pessimistic, dystopian writer, and Super-Cannes may reinforce that misreading. If it has a lesson, it is that the hyper- capitalism that is emerging in Europe cannot function without manufacturing psychopathology. It needs to satisfy repressed needs for intimacy and excitement, and it will not shrink from trying to apply to that task the same efficiency that has worked so well in the rest of the economy. But Ballard's deeper message is more hopeful. All such efforts to re-engineer human nature are eventually defeated by "the contingent world" - the love affairs, friendships and job rivalries whose incalculable shifts give shape to our lives.

Super-Cannes is a mordantly perceptive commentary on the hyper-modern economy that is establishing itself, virtually unnoticed, all over Europe. But it is also a love story, in which Sinclair is shown searching for the woman he imagined he had married, a dogged sleuth on the trail of the elusive scent of his lost wife, stubbornly trying to make sense of the changes that have overcome her in Eden-Olympia. And, like all of Ballard's writing, Super-Cannes is a gallery of surreal visual images. Who but Ballard could describe a trio of bikers in a supermarket as being like "carrion-birds on a skyscraper cornice, filling an unplanned niche in the ecology of the future"? Or write of the sea around Cannes that it was "smooth enough to xerox, a vast marbled endpaper"?

A magical hybrid that belongs to no known genre, a masterpiece of the surrealist imagination, Super-Cannes is another triumph by Britain's most uncompromisingly contemporary novelist.

John Gray will interview J G Ballard on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30am on Thursday 21 September