The shopping mall psychopath

What if violence was a cure for, rather than a symptom of, the stress in modern society? JG Ballard tells Thomas Sutcliffe how his new novel probes our deepest and ugliest motivations
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The Independent Culture

I have a feeling JG Ballard will be enjoying the fuel crisis. It's not that he's safely on the sidelines, in any way. He runs a silver Ford Granada himself, a vehicle whose stolid lack of style pretension has been the object of much fascinated comment by interviewers. It's rather that there's something peculiarly Ballardian about this whole crisis.

I have a feeling JG Ballard will be enjoying the fuel crisis. It's not that he's safely on the sidelines, in any way. He runs a silver Ford Granada himself, a vehicle whose stolid lack of style pretension has been the object of much fascinated comment by interviewers. It's rather that there's something peculiarly Ballardian about this whole crisis.

As a connoisseur of surrealism he will surely relish this weird snag in the historical continuum - in which the past returns with all its components switched about, so that small businessmen picket vital installations and union leaders issue stern warnings about irresponsibility. As a connoisseur of catastrophe he's likely to feel a pang of nostalgia for the renewed proximity of civic breakdown (real or imagined). In the panic buying and the fluttery predictions of imminent seizure you catch a whiff of what are now antique terrors, those old Cold War dreads that fuelled much of Ballard's early work. And as the author of Super-Cannes, his latest novel, he can file these events away under "corroboration" - a timely bit of evidence for anyone who thinks his prophetic imagination might have got away with him on this occasion.

Super-Cannes is set in Eden-Olympia, a high-tech community on the French Riviera dedicated to the new executive élite. Into this CCTV-supervised paradise come a recuperating English journalist, Paul, and his young wife, who is to take up a vacancy in Eden-Olympia's medical centre after her predecessor has apparently gone berserk with a rifle, slaughtering several executives and himself. In classic thriller style, Paul has enough time on his hands to ask awkward questions and soon discovers a serpent in the wired-up garden.

It is, you might think, a classic poolside thriller - a world of money and power and sexual promise upended by violence. But a casual reader who expects the genre's traditional restoration of order is going to be disappointed. Ballard has spiked the welcome Sangria with an unsettling proposition - that violent crime might be seen as a cure and not a disease, a way to restore vigour to the jaded senior manager.

"Consumer capitalism has a voracious appetite, it needs to keep us buying", Ballard explains, "There used to be political ideologies of right and left but they've fallen away. Now, how do you keep the whole system energised? Sooner or later they're going to realise that there's one big resource they can tap with a little bit of skilful open-cast mining. It's all lying there just below the surface, the latent psychopathy of the human mind."

Ballard has prospected in this region before - most famously in Crash, a book so fixated on its subject - the erotic potential of the road traffic accident - that it reportedly prompted one publisher's reader to declare that "This author is beyond psychiatric help." In the flesh, Ballard looks anything but deranged or dangerous. His manner is that of a favourite teacher - he is solicitous and welcoming, but talks with the leisurely umms of a man who is used to being listened to and heard out.

The usual conversational traffic signals don't quite work with him either - attempts to pull out in front of him merely make him press on the accelerator a little harder. He likes to finish a thought he has begun, and that sense of obsession can be seen in his work too. He seems mildly surprised when I ask about the similarities between Super-Cannes and his last book Cocaine Nights, also about an enclosed community which discovers the rejuvenating effect of delinquency, but he agrees that the last book probably hadn't exhausted his interest in the subject.

"The psychology of the business park has always interested me... In a way Eden-Olympia is a model for the Western world as a whole. These things are systemic... somewhere [one of the characters] says that vast Darwinian struggles will take place in the future between competing psychopathies... and this is completely true... it's already happened in a way. You know, the struggle between capitalism, fascism and communism was a struggle between competing psychopathies."

That struggle also supplied Ballard with a different kind of future for his novels - one in which catastrophe had rewritten the rules and allowed him to build societies from scratch. So does he feel any nostalgia for Cold War simplicities? "Yes, I probably do," he says, "because it did clarify the real conflicts between certain aspects of the human psyche. Now we're living in a consumer society that is one vast shopping mall, and what I call the suburbanisation of the soul is just unrolling across the planet."

Ballard wouldn't be Ballard if he hadn't inspected this superficially harmless landscape for its hazards. "There are dangers," he continues. "There is this deadening of the human sensibility. You go to somewhere like Kingston-on-Thames... that is very close to a modern hell. Go to the Bentall Centre" - he pronounces the name as someone might say Birkenau-Auschwitz - "and you see these huge galleries with people wandering around, and it's a world where the most important human decision is what sort of trainers are you going to buy."

The rough beasts of the future, it seems, will come slouching out of Bentall's, not Bethlehem. As Wilder Penrose, the malevolent psychiatrist who manipulates Eden-Olympia's adventures in savagery, puts it: "The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks." And we, enervated by lack of ethical exercise, won't be in any condition to resist them. "We live like figures embalmed in moral Lucite" Ballard explains, "We're totally suffocated in moral systems of one kind or another. As I think Wilder Penrose says, very few moral decisions are left for us today any more. How we care for and educate our children, our behaviour with our spouses, is closely regulated by law... our places of work, how we drive our cars, where we buy our food - everything is homogenised and sanitised, our civic relations with each other are sanitised... I mean you can happily and responsibly live your life today without ever making a moral decision at all."

While this might sound an easy life, Ballard argues that its essential monotony creates a dangerous itch in us. "The fact is that we're novelty-seeking creatures", he says, "Novelty is as important as Vitamin C." And we might not care very much who supplies the drug.

Ballard has a mischievous sense of wit - in his critical journalism he is fond of unlikely pairings that force you to rethink established reputations. In one essay, he brilliantly paired the steamy classicism of Alma-Tadema with Hockney's Californian pool paintings. I think he quite enjoys teasing journalists too, offering them whisky and soda before lunchtime to bolster the myth of the all-day drinker (he cut back his opening hours some time ago, and now waits until evening). But when I ask whether he has ever indulged in the modulated psychopathy that Penrose prescribes to his bored executives, he confesses again to the disappointing placidity of his domestic life.

What keeps him alert and productive is the stimulant of imaginative projection. If you draw the line at mugging or vandalism or a bit of blockade duty as a way of refreshing your sensibility, then his novels are probably the next best antidote to the nerveless insulation of modern life.

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