Friday, 19 June 2015

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard

*Serious Spoilers Below*

This will be the first of three reviews that center around a world that has lost its moral and ethical compass. I didn't plan this as a reading theme, but it came up! Of the three, this is probably the most realistic (not hard when the other two are G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength,) and also the most pessimistic. This is likely because the other two authors are deeply Christian, and so have a solution for the world's woes. Ballard, writing far more recently, has no such comfort.

There are a number of things about this book that are unsettling and offputting, but I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. I don't agree, either. I've read a couple of Ballard's books, and, perhaps with the exception of The Empire of the Sun, I remember walking away, shaking my head, frustrated. I remember very little about the collection of science fiction stories I read, except that it was predicated on the idea of space flight as an evolutionary crime, which annoyed the hell out of me.

It's a world view that is entirely other than my own, this nihilistic view of humanity. I find it interesting to visit, but difficult to not shake my head repeatedly.

Interestingly, the first thing that came to mind while reading this book was that it felt like it was a mystery without a detective. To be more precise, a mystery where the only person available is Watson, or Poirot's sidekick Hastings - you know, the guy who can be counted on to form sort-of adequate conclusions that are entirely wrong.

Charles Prentice finds out that his brother Frank is in jail in Spain. Frank had been running a club in Estrella de Mar. Charles assumes it's over nothing, despite the way everyone acts around him. He finds out it's for murder, the killing of five people by arson. It's been a huge mistake, he presumes. His brother has confessed. His brother can't possibly be guilty, he presumes.

The presumptions don't stop there. He also presumes that because he likes a guy, that can't have been him he saw raping a woman in the back of a car he knows is his. The guy he likes must have loaned his car to someone else. As far as the mystery goes, Charles is an idiot. He looks straight at everything and misses it, cherrypicking the weirdest facts to try to make them fit his entirely crazy theories.

Charles explores Estrella de Mar, which seems to be unlike the other somnolent rich English people communities in this area of Spain. Turns out, a crazy guy with theories of violence as regenerative has been applying them, bringing it back to life, keeping this plague of lazy people enveloping the world. Charles becomes a disciple.

And this is my issue. This is how it's phrased. This plague of lazy people who lie in the sun and nothing goes on in their communities, it'll take over the world. Soon the whole world will be like this. Except, you know...what about everyone who isn't rich? You think a community like that exists without people who do the work? There is one servant mentioned - a rich white girl being saved from drugs by being employed by another rich white family. But everyone there lives lives of inactivity - and to do that, someone's doing the work behind the scenes. Someone's cooking, cleaning, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting them.

So, bullshit. The world could never become entirely like that, Ballard, because it's predicated on immense amounts of labour of OTHER people who make that sort of life for rich people possible. And if what you're really saying is that what we're in danger of is all rich people becoming somnolent and inactive and sleepy, I'm not really sure I give a rat's ass one way or the other.

There's a curious elision of class here, in that anyone who isn't rich simply never appears. Just, never. Also weird is that when it comes to the arson, and the revelation about who was behind it, all the worst bits, the bits that took it beyond a prank, were all done by the one guy in the entire novel with a non-Anglo-Saxon name, Mahmoud. He doesn't really appear in the novel otherwise, except briefly, but it's weird that he pops up to take the blame for having done the dirtiest of the dirty work.

It's a weird book, one of those that seems to buy into, although perhaps you're supposed to be uncomfortable with it, the idea of violence being a necessary regenerative force, and also, that the reaction of victims to theft and rape and attempted murder is to shake themselves out of their lethargy, leave their homes, and start playing sports and putting on plays. Huh?

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