J. G. Ballard (1930-2009) was an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist. He is perhaps best known for Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical work about his childhood in Shanghai during the second world war which Steven Spielberg turned into a major feature-film (an experience he mostly enjoyed).
Ballard, however, is not easy to box into one genre. As well as writing extensively for science fiction magazines, he is also a master of dystopian fiction exploring behavior at the margins of society. Ballard’s dystopian work turns science-fiction on its head. Instead of exploring outer-space by setting his novels on far-off planets, Ballard aims to explore the darkest recesses of our ‘inner space’ in late 20th century consumerist societies. For example, his novel Crash (also turned into a critically-acclaimed movie) follows a group of car-crash fetishists who re-enact celebrity car-crashes for sexual arousal.
In this article we will focus on three of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novels, namely: High Rise (also turned into a movie), Cocaine Nights, and Supper-Cannes. More specifically, the aim of this essay is to explore the ways in which Ballard conceives of the relationship between violence and community.
J. G. Ballard: High Rise
High Rise (1975) is set in a luxury high-rise apartment building built in a London suburb, which is slowly descending into chaos. When the protagonist Robert Laing moves in, the tower block seems like the perfect place to live. The psychiatrist and lecturer finds that his new home has all of the conveniences 1970s England has to offer: shops, a gym, a pool, hair-dressers, a bank, and crucially, high-speed lifts to ferry passengers quickly up the tower.
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Over the course of three months, however, things begin to degenerate. Power-cuts become more frequent, and minor grievances between neighbors escalate. Slowly the building begins to stratify and residents divide themselves into groups based on whether they are higher or lower down the tower. Groups of residents fight over lifts, defend their access to common areas through violence, and raid other floors to vandalize them.
Slowly, residents find themselves completely enthralled in the orgy of violence, and withdraw from the world outside the tower. Life inside is all that matters. Residents quit their jobs, and regress into hunter-gatherer behaviors. In this neo-primitive state, they devote themselves to their internal war; which ends in a final confrontation between a resident of the lower floors and the building’s architect, who resides in the penthouse.
Cocaine Nights follows Charles Prentice, a famous travel writer based in London, in his search to find out what happened to his brother Frank. His mission takes him to Estrella de Mar, a retirement community on the Spanish Costa del Sol. His brother, the former president of Estrella de Mar’s sailing club, is being held in prison after he confessed to an arson and multiple murders.
In Estrella de Mar, Prentice meets Bobby Crawford, the sailing club’s resident tennis coach. Since his arrival at Estrella de Mar, Crawford has revitalized the community. Whereas the sailing club was previously empty and moribund, it is now a hive of activity. However, during his investigation, Charles discovers the tennis coach is not who he seems.
Far from being just an employee of the club, he is the orchestrator of a campaign of vandalism, graffiti, drug-taking, sadistic violence, and public sex. The reason? Increasing the membership of the tennis club. Without these acts of property damage and violence, the retirees had retreated into their individual homes. Bored and apathetic, they needed something to bring them together. In Ballard’s world, nothing does that like violence and crime.
Cocaine nights is, in some senses, a precursor to Super-Cannes. Like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes is set on the coasts of continental Europe and, also like Cocaine Nights, it features British expats living in an enclosed community. However, it is in this second novel where Ballard’s exploration of inner space, violence, and community reaches its peak.
Super-Cannes proceeds as a series of interconnected sketches which have a dream-like, almost surrealist quality. Super-Cannes is set in a residential business-park called Eden-Olympia. The residents enjoy a life of luxury in their gated community, with excellent access to medical care, restaurants, and their own private security force. When the book’s protagonist, Paul, first moves to Eden-Olympia for his wife Jane to take up a role as a pediatrician, nothing seems amiss. However, he quickly discovers that the pampered residents all suffer from stress and insomnia. How is that possible when the high-flying professionals live such a care-free life?
Finding himself at a loose end after quitting his job as an editor, Paul grows restless and sets out to find out what happened to his wife’s predecessor, the mild-mannered David Greenwood. What drove the apparently sane man to walk into his office with an assault rifle one morning, shoot his friends and colleagues, before turning the gun on himself?
Whilst his wife is at work, Paul retraces Greenwood’s footsteps, seeking to understand the inner depths of the man’s psyche. In true Ballardian style, nothing is what it seems. Beneath the tranquil surface, Eden-Olympia is teeming with deviance. Paul finds an underground world of sex, violence, crime, and drugs. The residents of the peaceful sea-side community revel and encourage this behavior; it is their escape valve, their hobby. The violence, crime, sex and drugs allows them to escape their normal lives, break free from the social constraints that bind them in their professional lives, and find meaning outside of work.
Shocked by his discoveries, Paul sets out to get to the bottom of how Eden-Olympia became this way. Why are the residents so accepting of the crime and so eager to participate in it? Behind it all, Paul finds one man, Eden-Olympia’s live-in psychiatrists: Dr Wilder Penrose. Like Bobby Crawford in Cocaine Nights, Penrose is a messianic figure with the capacity to lead where others follow. Also like Crawford, Penrose has a penchant for violence and chaos.
The reason there are so many residents engaged in crime, Paul discovers, is because Penrose is encouraging them to vandalize property, beat people up, have affairs, and go on drug-induced rampages as a cure for their stress and insomnia. Moreover, it seems to work. The residents who let loose, really are less stressed. In Penroses’ words:
‘Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and always has been. At times, it grasps entire nations in its grip and sends them through vast therapeutic spasms. No drug in the world is that powerful.’
Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard
As these three examples show, Ballard was fascinated with enclosed environments, separated from the wider world, and their impact on the psyche of the characters he describes. For instance, Ballard had a fascination with airport departure lounges, to the extent that, in the pre-2001 era where this was still possible, he used them as places to write.
Like all good dystopian fiction High-Rise, Cocaine Nights, and Super-Cannes draw a line between a terrifying future that is not quite here and the seemingly innocuous developments of the present. The setting for High-Rise, written in 1975, for instance, was inspired by the brutalist masterpiece Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London, completed in 1967.
Ballard makes these small insular communities ominous by installing an ever-present threat of violence. Violence, in Ballard’s novels, is the ‘nerve tonic’ that shocks us out of the boredom of consumer capitalism. Ballard’s characters tire of watching TV, cocktail parties, and shopping, slipping into a semi-passive existence which drains the life out of them. Only violence can bring back their lust for life and force them to give up their sedentary lives made up of simple pleasures and force them to pursue the higher goods such as art, or sport.
In Ballard’s novels, violence also serves to bond people together. It provides the group with a reason to become a community, as opposed to a mere collection of people, by creating an enemy we can bond over opposing. In this sense, Ballard’s novels are a parable about the social contract. Community is always founded on violence. Normally, this violence is structural in nature, helping it remain hidden. In Ballard’s world this hidden violence is made visible; shocking us into an acknowledgement that the perfect, static, utopian society may be beyond our reach until we achieve the impossible: purging our communities of the violence that joins us together.