Novel of the week


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

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide