Cocaine Nights

Scott McLemee reviews 'Cocaine Nights' by J.G. Ballard.

Published June 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a fine line, sometimes, between feeling tranquil and being tranquilized. Still, there is a difference. Tranquillity usually proves fragile and short-lived -- taking a Valium, or watching MTV for a few hours, creates a certain momentum of stupefaction, not so easily broken. J.G. Ballard's most recent novel is set in a resort enclave on the Mediterranean coast, populated by British and French expatriates who have made their money and retired while still young enough to enjoy themselves. Estrella de Mar offers its residents a utopia of leisure and comfort. But utopia is boring. Tranquillity has gotten out of hand.

Anyone familiar with Ballard's vision -- as it has taken shape, over the years, in a highly accomplished and often unnerving body of work, most of it in science fiction -- knows what to expect next. Psychic numbness and jaded tastes require extremes of stimulation. Sometimes it takes a good dose of barbarism just to get through the day. "Cocaine Nights" is not a sci-fi work; but as characters in the novel remark on a few occasions, Estrella de Mar offers a taste of what a "leisure-dominated future" might be like.

The narrator is Charles Prentice, a travel writer who has come to this "residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe" not to report on it, but to help his brother Frank, a nightclub manager the Spanish police have arrested in a case of arson that killed five people. Frank has confessed, but no one quite believes him. Charles investigates, hoping to clear his brother, and finds that Estrella de Mar had been a sleepy place until recently. It's undergone a kind of cultural renaissance: There are amateur productions of Harold Pinter plays, and people read Le Monde and the New York Review of Books between screenings of Hepburn-Tracy films at the local theater. There is also a little crime and seediness now, too. All of which appeared on the scene not long after the arrival of a charming tennis instructor, Bob Crawford.

If, at this point, you have deduced that Crawford set the fire -- well, not so fast. The novel gradually peels back layers of corruption and complicity; but this is not a detective story, exactly, and "guilt" is a fairly problematic concept in Ballard's universe. It does not give too much away, though, to note that the tennis pro is an amateur sociologist of a kind. Too much security yields cultural entropy. So Crawford figures that a bit of transgression (petty crime, random violence, some amateur pornography) is vital for the social ecology. As Charles' efforts to clear Frank bog down, he joins Crawford in applying this principle to a boring luxury resort nearby -- another little utopia of narcosis.

The experiment works. A little depravity really is the spice of life -- for perpetrator and for victim alike. "Someone shits in your pool, ransacks your bedroom and plays around with your wife's underwear," Crawford explains. "Now rage and anger aren't enough. You're forced to rethink yourself on every level, like a primitive man confronting a hostile universe behind every tree and rock. You're aware of time, chance, the resources of your own imagination ..."

This is not a moral vision in which the concept of innocence proves all that viable. And step by step, the plot closes in on the characters -- trapping everyone, the narrator included, in the remorseless logic of Ballard's thesis. It certainly disrupted my tranquil day. Time to go shit in the pool.

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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