Zeitgeist Slices: Cocaine Nights

Which book captures the spirit of the age for you? Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta? Philip K Dick’s The Penultimate Truth? Maybe Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four? In two essays for the Guardian, journalists and readers select their choice of novel heralding Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA. Western critiques of twenty-first century society. Yet no mention of J.G. Ballard, the sage of Shepperton, who in his 1968 pamphlet “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” predicted the rise of the celebrity and his presidency.

Nearly thirty years later, Ballard released his crime fiction Cocaine Nights, not a “whodunit” but “how did it happen” detective story in a similar vein to Alan Moore’s Victorian melodrama From Hell. Hints of Murder on the Orient Express. A 1996 story focusing not on the psychology of the murderer, but an exploratory pathology of modern times.

Psychiatrist Dr Sanger informs the travel-writing protagonist Charles Prentice:

But how do you energize people, give them back some sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator. Politics are a pastime for a professional caste and fail to excite the rest of us. Religious belief demands a vast effort of imaginative and emotional commitment, difficult to muster if you’re still groggy from last night’s sleeping pill. Only one thing is let which can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together. Crime.

Set in the gated expat communities of Spain’s Costa del Sol’s “white-walled retirement complexes marooned like icebergs among the golf courses”, brain death is “disguised as a hundred miles of white cement.” A white silence hovers over this soporific society. The surveillance society and the new puritanism. Camera as memory. Amnesia, people forget who they are. A world peopled by those whose “only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store.”

Scratch at the veneer of civilization and see the boredom, alcoholism and drug – both illegal and prescription – addiction. People under house arrest, inside their own minds. Exhausted futures.

Charles Prentice prophesizes:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilized the nervous system; the almost Africanized aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble?

J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights (London: Fourth Estate, 2014 [1996]), pp. 334, RRP £8.99

Further Reading

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