There’s something wrong with Estrella Del Mar, the lazy, sun-drenched retirement haven on Spain’s Costa Del Sol. Lately this sleepy hamlet, home to hordes of well-heeled, well-fattened British and French expatriates, has come alive with activity and culture; the previously passive, isolated residents have begun staging boat races, tennis competitions, revivals of Harold Pinter plays, and lavish parties. At night the once vacant streets are now teeming with activity, bars and cafes packed with revelers, the sidewalks crowded with people en route from one event to the next.
Outward appearances suggest the wholesale adoption of a new ethos of high-spirited, well-controlled collective exuberance. But there’s the matter of the fire: The house and household of an aged, wealthy industrialist has gone up in flames, claiming five lives, while virtually the entire town stood and watched. There’s the matter of the petty crime, the burglaries, muggings, and auto thefts which have begun to nibble away at the edges of Estrella Del Mar’s security despite the guardhouses and surveillance cameras. There’s the matter of the new, flourishing trade in drugs and pornography. And there’s the matter of Frank Prentice, who sits in Marbella jail awaiting trial for arson and five counts of murder, and who, despite being clearly innocent, has happily confessed.
It is up to Charles Prentice, Frank’s brother, to peel away the onionlike layers of denial and deceit which hide the rather ugly truth about this seaside idyll, its residents, and the horrific crime which brought him here. But as is usually the case in a J.G. Ballard book, the truth comes with a price tag attached, and likely without any easing of discomfort for his principal characters.
Cocaine Nights marks a partial return on Ballard’s part to the provocative, highly-successful mid-career methodology employed in novels such as Crash and High Rise: after establishing himself as a science fiction guru in the 1960s, Ballard stylistically shifted gears towards an unnerving, futuristic variant on social realism in the 1970s. Both Crash and High Rise were what-if novels, posing questions as to what the likely results would be if our collective fascination with such things as speed, violence, status, power, and sex were carried just a little bit further: How insane, how brutal could our world become if we really cut loose?
Cocaine Nights asks a question better suited to the ’90s, the age of gated communities and infrared home security systems: Does absolute security guarantee isolation and cultural death? Conversely, is a measure of crime an essential ingredient in a vibrant, living, properly functioning social system? Is it true, as a character asserts, that “Crime and creativity go together, always have done,” and that “total security is a disease of deprivation”? Suffice to say that the answers presented in Nights will be anathema to moral absolutists; the world of Ballard’s fiction, like life in the hyperkinetic, relativistic 1990s, abounds with uncomfortable grey areas.
On the surface, Cocaine Nights is a whodunit and a race against time, but as it proceeds – and as preconceived conceptions of good and evil begin to dissolve – it evolves into a thoughtful, faintly frightening look at under-examined aspects of 1990s western society. As is his wont, Ballard confronts his readers with some faintly outlandish hypotheses unlikely to be embraced by many, but which nonetheless serve to provoke both thought and a bit of paranoia; it’s a method that Ballard has developed and refined on his own, and as usual, it propels his novel along marvellously.
Cocaine Nights doesn’t have either the broad sweep or brute impact of the landmark Crash, but it retains enough social relevance and low-key creepiness to more than satisfy Ballardphiles. As is often the case in Ballard’s alternate reality, it’s a given that his most appealing, human characters turn out to be the most twisted, and that even the most normal of events turn out to be governed by a perverse, malformed logic; that this logic turns out to be grounded in sound sociological and psychological principles is its most horrific feature.