Book Review: J.G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights

A tale on what it takes to snap us out of a coma

TVR Books | Grigory Borodavkin | February 2011

Addicted to Cocaine Nights

Many writers of the past century have expressed anxiety over people of the future breaking from natural human values and slumping into a man-made hell. Whether it’s the all consuming terror of Big Brother thought control in Orwell’s 1984 or the conditioned reality where a wonder drug called Soma substitutes emotion in Huxleys Brave New World, post-WWII intellectuals prophesized the future growing bleak and depressing.

Among these visionaries British author J.G. Ballard holds his own. Hailed as a modern classic, his images of a flooded London in A Drowned World, a subculture obsessed with violent car accidents in Crash and the surreal journey through the dreams of a man haunted by disaster and nervous breakdown in The Atrocity Exhibition, have had a deep impact on the literary world, coining the term "Ballardian."

Born and raised in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1930 Ballard got caught up in WWII when the Japanese invaded China. He and his family were transported to an internment camp where he lived for almost three years. His childhood experiences in the camp are the main inspiration behind his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun later filmed by Steven Spielberg. But witnessing the atrocities of war and the way it made society cave in on itself played a detrimental role on his writing as a whole. His fascination with violence and the potential that technology wields to destroy man, first and foremost psychologically, are the cornerstones of a Ballard novel.

Cocaine Nights continues in much the same vein. Set in Estrella De Mar, a Spanish resort for the very rich, it tells the story of Charles Prentice, a travel journalist in search of truth behind his jailed brothers absurd confession to killing five people. The main character soon finds that the seemingly serene and peaceful façade of the resort is concealing dark secrets, as he sinks deeper in to a world propelled by violence, drugs and illicit sex.

The novel starts off as a classic detective story, as Ballard carefully keeps the reader engaged with solving the mystery behind the murders, knitting a whirlpool of suspects, making us pay attention to details. But as the story progresses and the main character along with the reader begins to suspect an invisible hand manipulating their conclusions, the novel stretches the genres boundaries with an unflinching subtlety and a masterly elegance. Page by page, Estrella de Mar itself morphs in to a character, its endless tennis courts, crystal clear pools and faceless tenants grow surreal, disturbing but at the same time ever so inviting.

The main theme of the novel deals with a technologically advanced society becoming lethargic and falling into a trance induced by antidepressants and television. The only thing that is capable of bringing the society to life is the primal force of crime. We see how a community is reanimated and groomed to flourish through murder, rape, drug abuse and arson. We are presented with a community content with being victim and transgressor, incapable of truly experiencing life without the thrill of vice.

But someone has to light the first match, and the other point Cocaine Nights makes is that such a society needs the "psychopath as saint" that will, without remorse or regret, throw morality to the wind, inspire these people to be happy and bind them for eternity with an elusive guilt.

Written in 1996, the novel presents us with another glance into the future by Ballard, who described himself as "a kind of investigator, a scout sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not."

What makes these themes relevant today is that our 21st century seems to be heading toward the lethargy described in the novel. People all around the globe are growing too frightened to live life, and I believe it is Ballard’s prediction that it is only a matter of time before such a messiah appears to redeem us from this slump. For better or for worse.

Ballard’s metaphors are evocative of Golding’s Lord of the Flies – they’re surgical precision in no way compromises the steady flow of the plot, keeping the atmosphere intact, conjured with such skill they almost seem accidental. The ambience, with its constant sense of looming dread, casual violence and immorality under a generous sun is compatible to the work of Bret Easton Ellis. But unlike his novels, where we are taken on a tour de force of graphic imagery that at times can be so harsh ones stomach turns, Cocaine Nights taunts the reader with hints of the extent the depravity of Estrella de Mar is capable of. This undercurrent of horror that takes place on the resort encourages the reader’s imagination to go that extra mile and create his own slideshow, thus tricking him into taking part.

With Cocaine Nights J.G. Ballard seems to be telling us that the water is tainted but drinkable nonetheless.

Cocaine Nights

by J.G. Ballard

Harper Perennial, London 2006

Available at the British Bookshop

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