One Line and You’re Hooked:
J G Ballard and Cocaine Nights
Admirers of the late English writer James Grahame Ballard (1930-2009) would have you believe that he was not as other men. I’m one of them; and I would certainly be of the opinion that he wasn’t—like other men, that is. For many years I would have regarded Ballard as my favourite living writer. It was with a real lump in my throat that I read his final book, Miracles of Life. As he was dying of cancer when he wrote it I knew that there would be no more extraordinary images from the mind of one of the great writers of the last half of the 20th century. The only time I recall feeling anything comparable was when reading Point to Point Navigation, which I knew was to be the last blast of Gore Vidal, another man I admired greatly.
Ballard was a child of the Shanghai International Settlement, born there to well-off British parents in 1930 and interred in a Japanese prison camp when Americaentered World War Two after the bombing of PearlHarbour. His childhood experiences became the basis for Stephen Spielberg’s fine adaptation of his semi- autobiographical book Empire of the Sun, which if there were any justice in the world should have won the Booker Prize, for which it was shortlisted in 1984. Since there isn’t, it didn’t. By the way, a young Christian Bale played the boy Ballard in the film.
Although Empire of the Sun was one of J.G. Ballard’s more mainstream outings it is the one that provides the answers to where all those astonishingly vivid images from his earlier work come from, such as the dry, arid landscapes and the drained swimming pools that somehow symbolise the minds of his unconventional protagonists.
It is those protagonists (if that can even be considered the correct term for them) who cause a lot of problems with Ballard’s detractors. These are human beings, usually men, who absolutely embrace the disasters that they are living through. In the nominally science-fiction novels these are global: The Drowned World, with those breathtaking images of a waterlogged London; the equally dried out landscapes of The Drought; the eerily beautiful and surreal vision that is The Crystal World or a walk across a desert continent in Hello America.
In his non-genre novels (although what they could be classified as, heaven knows) such as the enormously controversial Crash, or in Concrete Island and High-Rise, his ‘heroes’ embrace their individual disaster areas with equally ambivalent feelings. These are not your traditional men of action and that seems to bother some people.
I was recently taken with a yen to revisit Ballard’s work and for obscure reasons of my own I chose one of the later, more straightforward novels: the 1996 Cocaine Nights.
It follows the travel writer Charles Prentice in what seems initially to be an examination into why his brother has pleaded guilty to arson and the murder of five people in the affluent Spanish coastal resort of Estrella de Mar. Not even the Spanish police believe him to be guilty. Instead it becomes a bizarre journey of self-discovery for Prentice as he comes increasingly under the spell of the supposedly charismatic tennis instructor, ‘psychopath as saint’ and Messiah of the CostadelSol, Bobby Crawford. I use the word ‘supposedly’ because I cannot imagine how any sane person could listen to the deranged ramblings of this annoying lunatic for two minutes and be in any way influenced by him. Still, these things happen. Supposedly intelligent people become enamoured of strange cults like Scientology or the Catholic Church every day.
Ballard’s take on Gibraltar is amusing and perceptive, as anyone who has visited this odd but likeable little outpost of a dead empire will agree:
“The sometime garrison post and naval base was a frontier town, a Macao or Juarez that had decided to make the most of the late 20th century. At first sight it resembled a seaside resort transported from a stony bay in Cornwall and erected beside the gatepost of the Mediterranean, but its real business clearly had nothing to do with peace, order and the regulation of Her Majesty’s waves…Like any frontier town Gibraltar’s main activity, I suspected, was smuggling…
“The Rock was far larger than I expected, sticking up like a thumb, the local sign of the cuckold, in the face of Spain.”
Exploring the Inner Landscape
Ballard always had this marvellous way of looking at something that someone else might see as ordinary and then filtering it through his own very strange sensibilities. Crossing the border, Prentice makes his way up the Spanish coastline:
“I passed a half-completed Aquapark, its excavated lakes like lunar craters…
“The mountains had withdrawn from the sea, keeping their distance a mile inland. Near Sotagrande the golf courses began to multiply like the symptoms of a hypertrophied grassland cancer. White-walled Andalucian villages guarding their pastures, but in fact these miniature townships were purpose-built villa complexes financed by Swiss and German property speculators, the winter homes not of local shepherds but of Dusseldorf ad-men and Zurich television executives.”
Reaching Estrella de Mar, where his brother has been managing the nerve centre of the township—the Club Nautico—he discovers that unlike other ex-pat resorts lying slumbering in the sun, there is a thriving and energetic community here. By day the residents entertain themselves to exhaustion with tennis clubs, classes in sculpting and the organising of Harold Pinter revivals; but by night there is a more sinister force at work, with the people strangely soothed by the renegade philosophy of Bobby Crawford and his followers/co-conspirators. Prentice has followed in the footsteps of his brother into a deceptively dark world.
As he probes deeper into the disturbing psyche of this odd artificial community he finds himself even beginning to look like his jailed sibling.
Since this is a Ballard novel that is set in the ‘real’ world the logic of it shouldn’t work and if the truth be told it doesn’t really. This kind of thing comes across much better in his loosely science-fiction settings. And yet Cocaine Nights remains a strangely satisfying work, a late-period look into the unusual mind of a man who really wasn’t like others.
His writing was always slightly disconnected and distant, even in his scenes of violence or indeed his sex scenes. God knows that any sleazebag who bought Crash expecting a low-life thrill whilst reading the ‘dirty bits’ would be severely disappointed. In my defence, however, I was only fourteen at the time.
On a serious note I would, however, say that I consider Ballard to be one of the great cautionary voices as well as one of the truly great writers of the last fifty years. No one really saw the world like he did.
If you are a newcomer to him then I’d advise starting with The Drowned World before moving onto such difficult works as The Atrocity Exhibition or Crash. Or if you just want the sheer beauty of his images, then go straight for Vermillion Sands or The Crystal World. But be assured of one thing: you have never come across a mind like that of J. G. Ballard.
He really was not as other men.