SUPER-CANNES | By J.G. BALLARD | Picador | 392 pages | $24 hardcover

J.G. Ballard is our poet laureate of Modernism‘s dead zones. In the course of writing 25 books, he keeps scratching the same itch, repeatedly directing our attention to the stifling sterility and security of our entertainment culture. Boredom, in fact, is Ballard’s great subject, and he charts its corrosive effects — as well as the simmering rage beneath its surface — with an eye for detail that rivals that of a forensic clinician.

Ballard, who started as a science-fiction writer but now deals in what might be called speculative satire, amps up the alienation levels in his latest novel, Super-Cannes. The setting is a ritzy multinational business park ironically named Eden-Olympia. Perched above the French Riviera, it is a gated playground where an elite corps of executives live as well as work, their every need catered to by private medical, security and leisure services. But the corporate Arcadian calm has been recently shattered when a staff pediatrician named David Greenwood inexplicably embarks on a daylong shooting spree, taking out seven senior executives before turning his rifle on himself.

Super-Cannes begins as Greenwood‘s replacement, Dr. Jane Sinclair, arrives on the scene with her husband, Paul, a pilot recovering from a runway accident that cost him his flying license. Paul, who narrates the book, is somewhat unsettled when he and Jane are installed in the murderous doctor’s former house, not least of all because he suspects that his much younger wife may have been Greenwood‘s lover when they worked together at a London hospital. He begins to comb the place for evidence of the former tenant’s violent actions, and quickly uncovers several clues that put the lie to the official version of the killings. While his wife throws herself into Eden‘s obsessive work culture, Paul doggedly sets out to learn the real facts behind Greenwood’s murder spree, gradually unearthing its connections to a bizarre and violent behavioral experiment sanctioned by the corporate park‘s leaders.

If this setup sounds like something out of a potboiling thriller, Super-Cannes does — on one level, at least — function like a suspense story. But Ballard’s novel is also a prolonged meditation on the deracinated landscapes inhabited by his characters. Indeed, at times it almost seems as if the business park itself — a sunny, bubble-wrapped nightmare — is the book‘s true protagonist.

Eden-Olympia’s reigning spirit is Dr. Wilder Penrose, the bull-browed, aggressively solicitous house shrink who takes Paul under his wing. Like many of the novel‘s characters, Penrose is essentially a stock figure of B movies — in this case, the mad psychiatrist. While publicly lamenting the ”suburbanization of the soul,“ he secretly supervises groups of high-level executives as they participate in therapeutic ratissages — brutal group attacks on immigrants of color, prostitutes and drug dealers in Cannes. Rape and visits to 13-year-old hookers are also encouraged by the good doctor as prescriptions for relieving a host of ills from insomnia to depression that formerly afflicted his high-performing clients.

Paul never dreams of going to the police when he learns about Eden-Olympia’s weekend storm troopers, not even after they begin trying their hands at murder. Instead, Ballard repeatedly subjects his hero — and his readers — to repeated and long-winded confrontations with Penrose, whose heavy-handed theories split the distance between de Sade and B.F. Skinner. In these and similar scenes, Ballard‘s book loses almost all semblance of being a novel; his characters don’t seem to actually speak to each other, but merely deliver position papers, trading in glibly provocative phrases. ”In a totally sane society madness is the only freedom,“ Penrose purrs at one point, in a scene worryingly unadulterated by any sense of authorial irony.

Readers of Ballard‘s previous novel Cocaine Nights may find much of this rhetoric overly familiar. (In that book, random crime takes on therapeutic properties as an antidote to the deadly boredom of retirement communities on the Costa del Sol.) And in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Ballard’s provocations can sometimes seem like little more than a dystopian dandyism. In any case, it‘s hard not to cringe when Penrose fatuously proclaims that ”Meaningless violence may be the true poetry of the new millennium.“

If Ballard tends to drive home his pet themes with all the subtlety of a guy with a jackhammer, he is also capable of intricately exploring the far shores of alienation, blasted psychological states that few authors could even imagine. The most compelling moments in Super-Cannes revolve around its narrator’s curious paralysis and disassociation as he witnesses Eden‘s effect on his young wife, a spunky freethinker who rapidly degenerates into a workaholic drug addict and a disaffected sex toy for their predatory neighbors.

Paul, however, is engaged in his own perverse Pilgrim’s Progress. As he tracks Penrose‘s psychopathic posse, he gradually awakens to the clamor of his inner barbarians, and eventually confronts his own susceptibility to Helmut Newton–ish moments. But the discovery that he’s turned on by violence and teenage girls (he draws the line at excremental sex play) hardly seems like a substantial personal revelation — after all, it merely puts him on the level of the average male moviegoer.

In the end, Super-Cannes is an uneasy cocktail, a sharp-edged satire that sometimes verges on self-parody. Yet in the book‘s final third, as Paul stumbles through tightening webs of deceit and manipulation, Ballard’s considerable skills suddenly come into focus. While the plot accelerates toward an apocalyptic denouement, he continually pulls the rug out from under our feet, forcing us to frantically revise and reassess our judgment of various characters and their actions. The climax — inevitable, yet somehow unexpected –leaves you to ponder the disarmingly indistinct line between moral complexity and self-delusion.

For all its shortcomings, in other words, Ballard‘s novel finally achieves a brilliant, thorny ambiguity — the kind that lodges splinterlike in your imagination, and refuses to come loose.

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