Stranded in the Jungle--28

J. G. Ballard

ARSON. "The sight of the Renault burning in the night had exId me... One of the modern world's pagan rites was taking place, the torching of the automobile, witnessed by the young women from the disco, their sequinned dresses trembling in the flames." It's a scene from J. G. Ballard's 1996 novel Cocaine Nights. This act of arson puts everyone into a frenzy. The disco goers can't contain their exhilaration. They rush out to the swimming pool, and party until dawn. The narrator, Charles Prentice, is also thrilled by the blaze, even though the car being burned is his own. He sees the fire as an invitation, not a threat. It marks his initiation into a new way of life. Charles has recently come to Estrella de Mar, a resort town on the Costa del Sol of southern Spain. He hopes to rescue his brother Frank, who stands accused of murder. A mansion was fire-bombed, and five people died. Though Frank has confessed to the crime, Charles does not believe him. He wants to find the real culprit, and clear his brother's name. The novel starts out as a murder mystery, set in an exotic locale. But Ballard is not really interested in telling a crime story. The mystery he wants to solve is that of society itself. The book turns into something like a speculative essay in social theory. Charles gradually loses interest in his brother's case. Instead, he is drawn ever more deeply into the life of Estrella de Mar. The town is "a real community," unlike the rest of the Costa del Sol. A "new social order" has evolved here, a lifestyle for the twenty-first century. The inhabitants of Estrella de Mar are the new international leisure class. They are rich and white, with plenty of time on their hands. They have retired, while still young, from professional careers, and come to spend the rest of their lives in this sunny locale. Their energy has revived the town. Estrella de Mar is in the midst of a cultural boom, "like Chelsea or Greenwich Village in the 1960s." The streets are crowded. The discos, restaurants, and health clubs are full. The people engage in uplifting activities of all sorts: tennis lessons, opera revivals, cinema clubs, "amateur theatricals, cordon bleu classes," and ardent discussions of articles from The New York Review of Books. "Stand still for a moment," somebody warns Charles, "and you find yourself roped into a revival of Waiting for Godot." In short, Estrella de Mar is a bourgeois paradise. Charles has never seen anything like it. He wonders how the town got to be this way. He finds the answer in Bobby Crawford, the tennis pro at the local country club. Crawford is "a new kind of Messiah," the man responsible for the transformation of Estrella de Mar. He's a charismatic figure, a borderline psychopath with a winning personality. He is open, generous, sincere, and full of "boyish charm and enthusiasm." But he is also eerily devoid of affect, with a destructive streak and "a taste for fire." It's a seductive combination. Before Crawford came to Estrella de Mar, people just "drifted about, in a haze of vodka and Valium." They sat at home all day, sunbathing and watching TV. But then Crawford shook them out of their torpor. He started a campaign of vandalism and petty larceny. A few smashed satellite dishes, stolen cars, and obscene graffiti, and everyone was shocked into a sense of community. The people began to go out more. They got involved in community councils and "neighborhood watch schemes." They enrolled in painting classes and choral societies, and started making pornographic home movies. Estrella de Mar suddenly came to life. The lesson is clear. Society cannot function without transgression. A car must be burned now and again, as Crawford says, to "keep the troops in good heart." We need the stimulus of anti-social behavior; otherwise, everything runs down. As Charles learns more about what happened in Estrella de Mar, he becomes an ardent convert to Crawford's philosophy. "Crime and creativity go together," he says. "The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together." But is crime really the stimulus to culture? Or is culture, rather, the alibi for crime? In any case, people get jaded after a while. Vandalism is no longer enough. In order to keep things going, Crawford must keep on upping the ante. He sets up drug-dealing networks and prostitution rings. His acts of arson become ever more spectacular; crime is now "one of the performance arts." Crawford even commits a few rapes, to "keep the girls on their toes." This upward spiral culminates in murder. What's really needed is a sacrifice. Only a pact sealed in blood can really bind the community together. There must be a victim, it doesn't much matter who. There also must be a scapegoat, someone to assume the burden of guilt. At the end of the novel, Charles accepts this role. Ever the good bourgeois, he does his duty, and confesses to a crime he did not commit. Instead of assuaging his brother's guilt, he decides to share it. Ballard recounts the whole story in a hilarious deadpan. His prose stays unremittingly flat, no matter what happens. It records the most outlandish details in a detached, clinical tone. Such writing dulls the allure of culture and crime alike.

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