by J.G. Ballard (Picador U.S.A., $24) SHOOTING SPREES are nothing new. The evening news makes them regular fare; Hollywood recycles and enhances the bloody,


Shock to the System

Corporate cubicles harbor dark secrets.


by J.G. Ballard (Picador U.S.A., $24) SHOOTING SPREES are nothing new. The evening news makes them regular fare; Hollywood recycles and enhances the bloody, familiar images. Literature has been slower to catch up with the trend—although J.G. Ballard has been chronicling media-age mayhem since the '60s. Best known as the author of Crash and Empire of the Sun (both filmed), Ballard now takes up arms, so to speak, to address the place of violence in modern society. You read that right—there is a place for carnage in the spotless corridors and sun-lit atriums of the executive office park, provided certain controls are established. That's the paradox discovered by middle-aged aviator and editor Paul as he and his much younger physician wife, Jane, forsake gloomy old England for a high-tech complex newly built above sunny Cannes. She's on six- month assignment at Eden-Olympia, whose grandiose name suggests both prelapsarian perfection and godlike position—just as its founders intend. Foremost among them is Dr. Penrose, a psychiatrist whose therapy program for his international executive patients is unorthodox, to say the least. It takes a while for self- appointed sleuth Paul to uncover the secrets behind Eden-Olympia's crisp facade; here Ballard makes Super-Cannes a knowingly noirish detective story full of familiar types and situations. Paul's an old-school gumshoe pessimistic about modernity (and hence a Ballard stand-in); he drives a vintage Jag, flies a propeller-motor plane, and has the temerity to question Eden-Olympia's mantra that "work is the new leisure." Idle himself, and supported by his wife while recovering from a plane crash, Paul investigates the shooting rampage perpetrated by Jane's idealistic predecessor, Dr. Greenwood. Was Greenwood guilty, Paul ponders, or was he just an Oswald-like patsy who was used, then killed, after he served his function? His search leads inevitably to Penrose, who declares: "Meaningless violence may well be the true poetry of the new millennium." In his prescription, overworked office drones need revitalizing doses of aggression, releasing endorphins and testosterone that lubricate the wheels of frictionless capitalism. "Homo sapiens is a reformed hunter-killer of depraved appetites," says the increasingly mad scientist. "We need to revive him." IN THIS REGARD, Super-Cannes is certainly a novel of ideas, none of them particularly new or convincing, as Paul and Penrose carry on a windy book-length debate about the moral implications of corporate-sponsored thuggery, S&M, and bermenschliche behavior. (The effect is like a slightly naughty Michael Crichton book, with cardboard characters also serving as mouthpieces.) Paul appreciates how a bit of Nietzsche may be necessary to save the business park—and society at large—from "corporate Puritanism." Some degree of sex and violence can be beneficial (as in cable porn and rugby matches), but where do we draw the line? To his credit, Ballard isn't saying. The initial illicit pleasure of transgression opens a portal to an alternate moral universe, and Ballard regularly invokes Alice in Wonderland to underscore that linkage. Poised on the threshold, voyeuristic Paul shares in drugs, kinky sex, and various other forms of antisocial behavior meant for the greater good. "We desperately need new vices," says the book's femme fatale, while Paul wonders where his own nether impulses will lead—to Penrose's totalitarianism or Greenwood's armed rebellion. The choice, for Ballard, isn't simply between good and evil, nor is it possible to turn back the clock on modernity. Super-Cannes doesn't end with the destruction of the dystopic Eden-Olympia (and our quixotic hero's fate is left in doubt). Our irresistible 21st century, e-mail, air conditioning, health clubs, and gourmet cafeterias have made the corporate campus a pleasant, almost self-contained world, so why leave? Our own gated suburban communities echo the insular trend—and it's not just about keeping outside evils at bay. On the contrary, Ballard implies, such comfortable privacy allows us to better cultivate our own dark, primitive urges. Pathology flourishes behind walls; technology only adds to the thrill.

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