Lady of the flies: book review / Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard

 

(c) Flamingo Books

 

I opened J.G. Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise with a little trepidation because of two common assumptions about Ballard’s oeuvre: firstly, that he was better at writing short stories than at writing novels; and secondly, that his earlier novels – those up until 1984’s Empire of the Sun, including the loose trilogies of The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World (1964-1966) and Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise (1973-1975) – are better than his later ones.

 

Generally, I agree with both assumptions.  While I think Ballard, who died in 2009, wrote some excellent novels, none of them had quite the same impact on me that his best short stories did – items like Concentration City, The Drowned Giant, Now Wakes the Sea and The Air Disaster are masterpieces of short fiction that aspiring young writers should be made to study in order to learn How It Is Done.  And though I always got some enjoyment out of his later novels, such as SuperCannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), it was clear that they weren’t in the same league as his earlier novels.

 

The problem with his later books, I feel, is that there’s too much going on in them and as a consequence they lack focus.  For example, Kingdom Come, which looks at the disturbing influence that a huge new shopping mall has on the inhabitants of a satellite town outside London, begins with a shooting spree by a crazed gunman, then touches on several contemporary issues like racism, football hooliganism and rampant 21st-century consumerism, and ends with a bizarre final section where an assortment of misfits take over the mall and try to set up a new (and inevitably dystopian) society inside it, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Alex Garland’s The Beach crossed with the George A. Romero movie Dawn of the Dead.  In other words, just as you’ve managed to take one trope on board, another one bustles along to confuse you further.

 

Sometimes I feel that this was due not so much to a decline in Ballard’s writing powers, as to the fact that the modern world – which all Ballard’s work portrayed through a uniquely distorted prism, part Franz Kafka and part Salvador Dali – was by the 21st century changing so fast.  Even his satirical radar couldn’t keep up with all the weird social, political and technological developments that contemporary life was generating.  Neither could he quite manage to accommodate everything adequately in each new book.

 

(Having said that, I should thank Kingdom Come for a memorable frisson it gave me last year, while I was reading it.  I’d arranged to meet a friend one afternoon in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friend hadn’t yet turned up when I got off at the local TCM station, which was next door to the Carthage Branch of Monoprix, so I took Kingdom Come out of my bag and spent a few minutes waiting beside the big supermarket with my nose stuck in its pages.  It took me a minute or two to realise that the supermarket wasn’t just closed for the afternoon.  It was gutted.  During the Tunisian revolution in January, it’d been looted and trashed and stood now as a razed shell, a disturbingly incongruous spectacle in the middle of this smart neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine bushes.  This was all spookily similar to what was happening in the book I was holding – wow, the prophetic power of literature!  If Ballard’s ghost had been nearby, having a quiet chuckle, I wouldn’t have been surprised.)

 

A plot summary of Rushing to Paradise suggests a similar lack of focus.  It tells the story of a group of environmental activists, led by an intense and plainly unbalanced woman called Dr Barbara Rafferty, who head for Saint Esprit, a Pacific atoll, to protest against a French nuclear test and save the albatrosses that nest there.  By dumb luck rather than by any tactical ability, they manage to force the French to withdraw from the atoll and, with the place to themselves, Barbara hits on the idea of converting it into a global eco-sanctuary, one where endangered plants and animals can brought from other continents and allowed to grow or breed in safety.  “Think of Saint Esprit as the ultimate environmental project,” she tells the youngest member of the group, a naïve 16-year-old called Neil Dempsey who is the novel’s focal character and whose loyalty to Barbara strays further into psychosis as the story progresses.  “We’re engineering the ecology of paradise!”  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and the utopian society that the environmentalists set up on Saint Esprit falls more than slightly short of its goals.  In fact, it all goes Lord of the Flies.  (That happened a lot in Ballard’s fiction.)

 

Later, however, Ballard shifts gears and what had been a dark satire of environmental idealism becomes an even darker satire of feminism.  Barbara starts to muse that, “Women don’t dislike men… We bring them into this world and spend the rest of our lives helping them to understand themselves.  If anything, we’ve been too kind to them, letting them play their dangerous games.”  Meanwhile, the male members of the party start dying of strange, debilitating sicknesses.  And whenever boatloads of environmental sympathisers arrive at the atoll, the women on board are persuaded to stay while the men go mysteriously missing.  It eventually dawns on Neil that Barbara is keeping him alive so that he can impregnate the women around him and the atoll can propagate what she has identified now as the most valuable species of all – the human female.  And if anything happens to compromise Neil’s fitness and virility, he’ll go the same way as the other men.

 

But the sudden switch from environmental satire to feminist satire here isn’t as jarring as the competing elements in Kingdom Come or Ballard’s other later books.  Perhaps it’s because we’re set up for this transition early on in Rushing to Paradise.  After meeting Barbara for the first time, a curious Neil does some research on her.  He discovers that in her youth she was a proper medical doctor but was disgraced in a scandal where she assisted some terminally ill patients with their (alleged) wish to die.  Thus, Ballard establishes her as a chameleon of trendy causes – voluntary euthanasia, environmentalism, feminism – who happily drops one and adopts another whenever it suits her damaged state of mind.

 

In fact, I found Rushing to Paradise a surprisingly enjoyable book, more enjoyable than the assumptions I mentioned at the start of this review had led me to believe.  Nonetheless, the strongest part of it is the bleakly-amusing central section, which details the environmentalists’ hopeless attempts to build a Gaia-friendly Shangri-La on the atoll after the French have abandoned it.  (After sinking the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985, and after deciding to run nuclear tests at Moruroa to pre-empt the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, those beastly French were definitely the environmental villains du jour when Ballard penned this novel.)  He has a merry time skewering his characters for the gulf between their rhetoric and (the consequences of) their actions.  For instance, the ship that carries them to the atoll causes an oil slick that destroys most of its birdlife.  And the endangered animals that environmental groups around the world send to them, believing they’ve turned the atoll into an ecological Noah’s Ark, end up in their cooking pots as survival there becomes more desperate.

 

Although his early novels like The Drowned World and The Drought dealt ostensibly with environmental disasters and were prescient of our modern fears about global warming, Ballard never seemed to have much truck with the environmental movement.  Indeed, one or two of the pieces in his 1996 collection of non-fiction, A User’s Guide to the Millennium, were published originally in motoring magazines and suggested he was even a bit of a petrol-head.  However, I wouldn’t go so far as the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle who, on the event of Ballard’s death, declared that the writer had been a Conservative (http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/3557201/jg-ballard-was-a-man-of-the-right-not-that-the-right-really-wanted-him/).  I know he did write once about “the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher… the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip…” but as this came from the pen of a man who’d written in Crash about people being sexually aroused by car accidents, Mrs Thatcher would be ill-advised to take it as a compliment.  Besides, in the 1990s, Ballard turned down the offer of a CBE, condemning the British honours system as “a Ruritanian charade that helps prop up our top-heavy monarchy.”  Hardly the words of a man of the right.

 

My feeling is that, rather than expressing Ballard’s disdain for the environmental movement or for the feminist movement, Rushing to Paradise is merely a character study.  It examines a megalomaniac who, as I’ve said, uses causes such as environmentalism and feminism as tools to herd her followers closer and closer to her messianic goals.  Indeed, Barbara is one of the most intriguing of Ballard’s characters, managing to be a tyrant and mass-murderer but managing to engage the reader’s pity too.  In one of Neil’s rare moments of insight, he glimpses the profound solitude that she really longs for, realising “for the first time that she would only be happy when was alone on Saint Esprit, when Kino, Monique and the Saitos had gone and even the albatross had abandoned her.”  And her demented spirit seems to shine ever more brightly as people die around her and as her own body withers with malnutrition, illness and overwork.

 

Correspondingly, if Rushing to Paradise has a fault, it lies in the characterisation of Neil.  Possessing little spirit himself, easily manipulated and more than a little stupid, he seems to exist only as a literary device — as a blank page for recording, and an empty mirror for reflecting, Barbara’s glorious insanity.  And unsurprisingly, at the book’s finale, when he is rescued from the atoll, his one impulse is directed towards the mad but magnetic older woman who has dominated him for so long.  Neil, writes Ballard, “would join her, happy to be embraced again by Dr Barbara’s cruel and generous heart.”

 

Indeed, his passivity becomes downright annoying.  Reading the book, there were times when I wished that I could step into its pages, onto the sands of Saint Esprit, and throttle him — or that Dr Barbara Rafferty would bump him off too and finish the job of rendering Saint Esprit’s male population extinct.