The hero of J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes is Paul Sinclair, a magazine editor who moves to the gated community of Eden-Olympia with his young wife. Paul was once a man of action but a flying accident, and the fact his wife is the primary breadwinner and the impetus for their move, has rendered him largely impotent. Paul turns his attention to a mystery: Why did the young doctor, whose house they now live in and whose job Paul’s wife now has, go nuts and shoot ten people?
Paul and his wife, Jane, are thoroughly human characters and the mundane aspects of their story play out in households across the world every day. The recent economic downturn has created thousands of Pauls, left underemployed and puttering while their wives take over traditional male roles. Creating a story for one of these guys is a simple matter of dropping something into their lives that gets them on their feet: an alien invasion, a skinny-dipping neighbor or a murder mystery. What Ballard did to make it a good story is to tweak the setting. The gated community Paul and Jane move to is a high-tech business-and-residential park, where driven young people can work to fulfillment and then stumble home to luxury. It’s an ideal world for Type A’s, a veritable utopia.
The problem with utopias, though, is that they can’t actually exist. Sir Thomas More acknowledged this in 1516, when he created the word by borrowing it from the Greek for “no place.” The residents of Eden-Olympia can only maintain their façade of perfection if they release their angst and stress through brutality and deviant sex. Even the amateur sleuth, Paul, finds himself committing minor acts of vandalism, stealing a car and considering sex with an eleven-year-old prostitute.
Why do the characters in Super-Cannes do the things they do? They have to. It’s in their nature. They are products of their just-enough-of-kilter environment. It’s a good lesson in creating character-driven drama.
I will be visiting Ballard’s world again, both through a re-read of Super-Cannes and the, hopefully soon, delivery of Cocaine Nights, an earlier book by the author. We’ll see what else he can show me.