Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cocaine Nights

A "timeless world beyond boredom with no past, no future and a diminishing present...nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools."

Such is Ballard's charicature of Spain's Costa del Sol, a dystopia of premature retirement that forms the backdrop for this 1997 novel - and which is ultimately of far greater interest than the rather weak murder-mystery he has built around it. 

The author seems to have been aware of this too, because he keeps re-stating his core conceits about this chronologically-challenged limbo:  

"The Costa del Sol is the longest afternoon in the world, and they've decided to sleep through it."

"Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door...brain death disguised as a hundred miles of white cement."

"Memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilized the nervous system."

"Shaded lounges, their bunkers with a view, needing only part of the external world that was distilled from the sky by their satellite dishes."

Ballard's narrator (and I at once sensed this novel might have worked better if it had been written in the third person) is Charles Prentice, a travel writer whose brother Frank is languishing in a Spanish jail having confessed to an act of arson in which five people died. 

To investigate the circumstances of the villa fire, Charles comes to the resort of Estrella de Mar where his brother worked as the manager of the Club Nautico. Compared to the comatose state of the endless white pueblos Charles detects something of a mini-Renaissance under way in Estrella. This civic renewal turns out to be the result of a "tonic regime" instigated by a sociopathic tennis coach called Bobby Crawford. 

All this charismatic 'entertainments officer' has to do is chuck a few turds into swimming pools and pinch a few DVD players and the mentally embalmed begin to experience a surprising cultural awakening. (Along with the painting classes and amateur drama come a host of new vices, such as kiddie porn, which Crawford explains as a form of misplaced nostalgia in this world without children.) 

So Ballard's plot is being driven by another notion which will be familiar to any student of history that had to answer the essay question comparing the achievements of the peaceful Swiss with their cuckoo clocks and the unruly Italians with their Renaissance: 

"The first and last truth about the leisure society and perhaps all societies - crime and creativity go together, and always have done." 

And: "The ultimate crime-based society is one where everyone is a criminal and no one is aware of the fact."

Ballard has drastically simplified the reality of retirement in Nueva Andalucia, in order to prognosticate on the direction of our increasingly ageing society. He characterises this environment as "the Fourth World", the place which is "waiting to take over everything", but in the end the idea is more of a knowing gag than a serious piece of futurism, and throughout its 329 pages I constantly felt the absence of the arresting humour of Michel Houellebecq, for whom scenarios like this are the gist of some strikingly baneful visions of proximate eras. 

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