Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Cocaine Nights, by J.G. Ballard

I’m back on a J.G. Ballard kick and decided to pick up Cocaine Nights, one of his later and less surreal novels. After my panning of Crash and a more praiseful review of his collected short stories, I continue to be fascinated by this strange and enigmatic British writer who died a few years ago.

Cocaine Nights is framed like a literary murder mystery—call it a why’dunit rather than a whodunit—but it possesses many of the tropes that Ballard was well known for. These include passive sex and drug use, empty swimming pools, perspectives on consumer culture, violence as entertainment, and a grab at prescience by setting his work in a very near but off-kilter future.

The book tells the story of travel writer Charles Prentice who arrives in the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar after his brother, Frank, who runs a bar on the resort called Club Nautico, has confessed to murdering five people in a brutal house fire. Convinced that his brother could never have committed such a heinous crime, Charles launches his own investigation and gets sucked into the resort’s dark underworld. There, he discovers a lolling leisure class so anesthetized that it takes vicious acts of cruelty to stir its members from their somnolence.

The novel is written in Ballard’s trademark style—the vast, sweeping diction, the plumy vowel usage, the grand blasts of description. While I did find that some of writing could have used a better edit (I lost count, for example, of how many times Cocaine Nights uses the obscure adjective ‘louche’), there can be no doubt that Ballard had his own unique and engaging voice. This book is clearly the best written, sentence for sentence, of the three of his I’ve read.

Unfortunately, though, Cocaine Nights is undone by painful leaps in plot and its own internal implausibility. Charles goes to visit Frank in prison early in the novel to interrogate him about why he would confess to a crime he clearly could not have committed. Rather than have the two brothers hash the whole thing out right then and there, Ballard makes Frank aloof and cryptic in a very artificial and unbelievable way. This behaviour is necessary to set Charles on his mission to solve the mystery himself, and thus instigate the novel’s action, but it is a huge contrivance: this never feels organic to the world or circumstances that Ballard has created.

Once you realize that the plot possesses this false front, it becomes incredibly difficult to invest yourself in the twists and turns of Charles’s odyssey. Along the way, he ends up sleeping with one of his brother’s lovers, getting attacked by the man who is really behind the strange violence in Estrella de Mar, viewing a rape during the filming of a porn movie, and various other misadventures. But none of it rings true, even in the book’s deliberately bizarre firmament. Of course the whole novel is a falsehood, but it still needs to be true to that falsehood.

Cocaine Nights hasn’t turned me off J.G. Ballard—I’ll most likely be back for more of his strange, transgressive writing—but in the end I can’t really recommend this book to fans of honest and well-structured fiction.


  1. Gee, what version did you read? Painful leaps of plot? It's quite densely plotted... internal implausibility? ha, you think this is a realistic novel -- you're probably trying to impose your own sense of a story on JG (I note you panned Crash -- the usual sign of misunderstanding -- never, ever try The Atrocity Exhibition!) false front? You miss the whole basic psychology of the piece -- the relationship of children and parents and individuals and society... essentially, Civilization and Its Discontents meets Kafka... and I note you never saw any of the many Kafka links, along with the little dose of fascism...

    here's a hint: stat at the beginning with The Drowned World and move through JG's phases as he did...

    oh, and louche is said three times... and this isn't full of plummy vowels -- that's silly... if anything, CN is full of hilarious one-liners... have you not yet realized JGB is quite darkly funny?

    here... do a little research on my site:

  2. OK, I take some of my rant back, having done a quick re-read... I don't agree with Frank being "aloof and cryptic in a very artificial and unbelievable way"... go back to the first sentence... this is a story about crossing frontiers... psychological frontiers. Frank has crossed the border; he acts like a zealot. He's not cryptic at all -- he freely admits his guilt. It's Charles who can't accept it. "the last thing an interrogator wants is the truth"... then the very important family history... JG always leaves his clues lying around at the beginning of his stories... we start with frank stealing and charles being blamed by dad... depressing memories...

    however, you're right... the whole brother thing is a contrivance... one surmises JG couldn't come up with another reason for charles to do his Rockford/Columbo routine... however, I don't think this sibling shuffle is enough to ruin the overall story, which, of course, has nothing to do with solving the crime and everything to do with JG's ideas about a little deviance being the spice of life... or, when it comes to civilization, why do the discontents have all the fun?

    of the four "mystery" novels, Super-Cannes is probably the best. I'd also recommend High-Rise, Atrocity Exhibition, Empire of the Sun (by far the best), Kindness of Women (underestimated), Unlimited Dream Company

  3. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for your comments. I've been meaning to respond to the first but I'm actually getting married this weekend and things are a little hectic. But I do appreciate your insights and will reply to each in turn when I'm back online after my nuptials.