That sublime Riviera touch

Nicholas Royle visits a coast of dreams with the century's first essential novel
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Super-Cannes by J G Ballard (Flamingo, £16.99, 392pp)

Super-Cannes by J G Ballard (Flamingo, £16.99, 392pp)

Stepping forward to accept the outstretched hand of the new century, JG Ballard must have experienced the sensation of meeting someone with whom he was already well acquainted. Throughout his career, Ballard has given the impression of a man fully prescient of the future that was rushing backwards to meet him and us. The Drowned World (1962) anticipated talk of global warming by three decades, just as The Drought (1965) predated current post- Kursk fears regarding contamination of the ocean by nuclear waste.

But he foresaw more than just the potential for environmental catastrophe. Ballard's real subject matter has always been the inner space within our heads. He explores the effects on it of the forms of society in which we choose to live. Readers puzzled by the close resemblance of Super-Cannes to Ballard's previous novel, Cocaine Nights (1996), need only remind themselves that for a quarter of a century he has been writing explicitly about the changing psycho-pathologies of human beings trapped in closed societies.

Super-Cannes is an elegant, elaborate trap of a novel, which reads as a companion piece to Cocaine Nights but takes ideas from that novel and runs further. In Cocaine Nights, a naive male narrator, Charles Prentice, arrives at the Club Nautico in a Spanish resort to find out why his brother is pleading guilty to murder after the deaths of five people in a house fire. In the new novel, another naive narrator, Paul Sinclair, accompanies his doctor wife, Jane, to the high-tech business park of Eden-Olympia in the hills above Cannes.

A former acquanitance, Dr David Greenwood, has run amok with a rifle, apparently killing seven top executives and three hostages before turning his weapon on himself. While Jane takes over Greenwood's medical role in Eden-Olympia, Sinclair spends his leisure time playing the amateur detective, since the killing spree is at odds not only with the character of the man they knew, but also with the his reputation on the Riviera for kindness and social concern.

Sinclair is not the only one digging. Ballard's characters constantly seek out ulterior motives, undermining each other while appearing to offer support. For a first-person narrative, there's a great deal of dialogue, most sly and cunning. But interaction is not restricted to talking: these people can't keep their hands off each other, whether it's Eden-Olympia's psychiatrist Wilder Penrose lifting the recuperating Sinclair out of his Jaguar, or Sinclair removing the seductive Frances Baring's hands from the wheel of her BMW and placing them in her lap.

The most harmless gestures - such as a security guard's removal of a blade of grass from Sinclair's hair - are loaded with sinister significance. We are on constant alert: anything could happen, and if we are accustomed to Ballard's work we find ourselves drawn swiftly back into his fictional world.

Certain lines ("Over the swimming pools and manicured lawns seemed to hover a dream of violence"; "the ancient rocks so porous that they resembled immense rust-spills, the waste tips of past time"; "the hotels of the Croisette trembled like uneasy spectres, a dream about to collapse into itself") are so archetypal they could have come from almost any Ballard novel but just happen to have crash-landed in this one. The effect is to reinforce his fictional world to the point where we never doubt it. We become as willing as Sinclair to fall into the trap he has laid.

The most fundamental difference between this book and Cocaine Nights is that the latter was Ballard's last 20th-century novel, while Super-Cannes is an artefact of the new century. "The dream of a leisure society," Penrose tells Sinclair, "was the great twentieth-century delusion". The Club Nautico of Cocaine Nights was founded on that delusion, while Eden-Olympia could not be more different. "Work dominates life at Eden-Olympia, and drives out everything else," Penrose tells Sinclair.

Penrose's ideas on social pathology lead to characteristically vivid scenes of deviant sex and extreme violence, asking searching questions of our own relationship to voyeurism. We may go a little mad after a stretch of hard work - mass hysteria or genuine psychosis?

For once, the office-bore's motto, "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps", could not be more apposite. To find out why, read Super-Cannes, the first essential novel of the 21st century.

* Nicholas Royle's new novel 'The Director's Cut' is published by Abacus.