Friday, August 10, 2012

Super-Cannes - J.G Ballard

Lets travel briefly from the battlefields of Troy to a battlefield of a different kind. Welcome to 'Eden-Olympia' a very high tech business/residential park which is, as the resident psychiatrist at Eden says 

".. isn't just another business park. We're an ideas laboratory for the new millennium"

Beautiful well furnishes offices, excellent  residences to with state of the art furnishing, lots of recreational facilities and to top that the park is situated on the hills above Cannes. So it is a veritable modern day Eden right? Hold on, there's a catch here. What is 'Eden' if not an utopian ideal, a dream actually, a dream which can be conceptualized but never come true because as we know there is always a serpent lurking around in it which throws all the plans off gear. So is there any such serpent lurking around in Eden-Olympia and if so what is it? Well for starters, a doctor in the park 'David' had gone apparently crazy, going on a killing spree in the park and finally been killed himself. Was the killing a one off thing or a sign of things in the park? It is to replace his position that Jane a doctor and her husband Paul (elder to her by quite a bit) come to Eden. 

This is by no means a futuristic novel, which can said to occur 20-30 years later. This is in the now and here, this could be a story (a little less magnified than in the novel) which happens in any of the innumerable tech parks dotting the landscape of many countries. A landscape and an environment where the first task of the employers is to

".. make the office like a home - if anything, the real home.".

If that's the case, what about their actual homes? They are in Ballard's words

"Service stations, where people sleep and ablute. The human body as an obedient coolie, to be fed and hosed down, and given just enough sexual freedom to sedate itself."

There is an air of invisible malevolence that is present throughout the novel, right from the novels beginning when Jane and Paul are in the same house that David lived. Is it a random act or is there anything sinister behind it too. There is an intriguing sub-text to it, in that there is a hint that Jane and David may have been lovers once (Jane insists it wasn't anything serious), but Paul seems to thinking about it a lot, maybe even obsessed about it.  As Jane settles down into her work, Paul having nothing much to do starts poking into the events on the day that David lost it. Is that mere curiosity or the obsessive need to find more about his wife's (alleged/imagined) lover? As Jane and Paul becomes obsessed with work and David respectively their lives spiral out of control and they are caught in a vortex which is not of their making, but which still sucks them in. 

Mystery/Thriller writers can take a leaf (or an entire tree even) from Ballard. The way he heightens the suspense is excruciating but exciting at the same time. Even the beautiful landscape of Eden-Olympia seems to have been infected with evil and becomes scary, like when Paul goes on a walk and finds all the tennis courts and other recreational facilities empty. There are no people at the banks of the ornamental lakes constructed. When you see an unoccupied natural wood/lake you don't see it as odd, but when you see something that has been constructed especially for the purpose of human entertainment, but has been left unused it kind of makes you think about the people Eden-Olympia. 

There is a very sutble inversion of the normal mystery novels. In them the novel is structured on the unraveling of the mystery, like say you have a veil and it is slowly opened showing what is inside it bit bit bit. Here it is the reverse where Ballards constructs the mystery first for you, brick by brick or the pieces of a jig jag puzzle, where you start from nothing and end up with something. Now, both seem similar and yes the end result of both are the same, but the experience you get on reading it is completely different. For instance in the conventional novels as it progresses you mind gets clearer and clearer as to what the novel is about. But in this novel, as the pieces are assembled, a picture come into view which keeps changing shape as new pieces are being continuously placed. So you are no clearer than you were at the beginning. This is what I referred to as excruciating suspense, you think you have a clear vision, but the next piece of the puzzle changes the shape dramatically. It's as if all the people there have masks and not just one. Peel of one mask and the other is visible and so it goes on and will Paul ever be able to get to see the actual face?

The writing is crystal clear  and for all the mysteries/twists that the novel gives the pace is languid but never lagging at any point. It is incredible that  such a even paced novel in terms of events can be so captivating, much more than books that have a murder in every other page. But to term this as a thriller/mystery novel would be wrong as this is one of those works that transcend genres, it is a mystery and a novel of ideas at the same time, ideas that can come true and for that all the more disturbing. To borrow and rephrase from Mohammad Ali, the prose "floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee"

The most important thing that the novel warns us about is that man is to be feared the most when he is at his sanest (and wants to preserve that level of sanity). A man's capacity for destruction when he is (supposedly) completely sane can never be underestimated, as we see from the actions of the people in the novel. Here destruction does not refer to large scale violence and bloodshed only, but also mental violence, a violence of the mind that trivializes and even justifies the physical violence that the body does. That is the even more dangerous violence because it is the mind that drives the body to behave as it does. That's why a despot can order a genocide and give hundreds of reasons for it. The reason could be absurd to us but it would be perfectly logical to that person however twisted it may seem to us. Perfect sanity is the point of highest insanity and it cannot be differentiated. In contrast a person in the grip of supposed insanity could soon  come to his senses. That's why when a young man kills an old lady with the logic that her money would be of better use him, he himself starts rejecting that notion soon enough and becomes a victim of his own mind. You would never such vacillation in the minds of the sanest. Ultimately at the end of the novel you end up with the age old question of what is sanity and insanity and where do the twain meet and diverge?  The novel doesn't provide us any answers but gives us a lot to think about.

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