‘Ballardian’ – Super Cannes

Mike Thompson has designed a lamp that is powered by human blood.

The sequence unrolls like a snuff movie: she sits at the table like a priestess at the altar, smashes a glass, cuts herself on it, drains her blood into the liquid in it, and is suffused in an electric blue light. There’s something deeply strange about a premeditated act of violence being conducted in silence.

Thompson, an English designer based in the Netherlands, designed the lamp having discovered how the chemical luminol is used in forensic science to mark traces of blood left at crime scenes.

“It kind of triggered this thought in my mind, that if energy somehow came at a cost to us, then maybe it would make us think differently about the way we use it,” Thompson told LiveScience. The lamp is intended to “challenge people’s preconceived notions about where our energy comes from,” he said, and it forces the user “to rethink how wasteful they are with energy, and how precious it is.”

Having just finished reading Super-Cannes, it’s hard not to find the invention of a blood lamp deeply Ballardian. There’s an obvious sado-maschistic edge to the sensibilities behind the concept, and an undercurrent of vampiric eroticism to the video, that resonate with the sort of ideas Ballard frames in his writing.

Firstly, the novel: set into the hills above Cannes, in the bleaching light, Eden-Olympia is an executive-class, ‘intelligent’ business park, which has been touched by madness. An apparently sane doctor has killed ten people in a storm of violence that cannot be explained. Paul Sinclair, husband of the doctor’s eventual replacement, feels compelled to investigate and gradually uncovers a subculture of crime and engineered psychopathy that threatens to spill outside the mirrored walls of the park.

In Eden-Olympia, we discover, the executives are restless. They have slipped moorings, are adrift in an environment in which work is the only familiar landmark. In an enclosed, disconnected world, they have become inured to whatever normal society expects of us; the market sets its own morality. Dr Wilder Penrose is employed to manage volatile minds: “our amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight”. Without wishing to give the game away, we soon learn that he has prescribed a particularly depraved brand of catharsis.

Essentially, Super-Cannes is a stylised thriller, a tightly twisted coil of  narrative  which flashes the disquieting, prescient ideas for which Ballard (who died this year) became renowned. In fact, the Collins English Dictionary now carries a definition for ‘ballardian’:

adj. resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”

The novel’s chief weakness is that at times it feels too much a set piece, the writing merely facilitating the enaction of the author’s ideas. Ballard sometimes over-tells in a clunky, hammy way: the narrator, Paul, introduces his wife as “spunky but insecure”, and she never really provides anything other than a rather wooden cameo.

But in a sense these blips are no more than perculiarities of the genre, Chandleresque affectations, and even serve to heighten the strangeness of the narrative. I found Super-Cannes an overwhelmingly intruiging, unsettling novel to read. It is filled with an oppressive brightness; the glare of white buildings, the fusing heat of a exposed rooftop, the vulgar shimmer of neon in alleys. Ballard shoots off images like rogue fireworks:

“Cannes lay beneath us, a furnace of light where the Croisette touched the sea, as if an immense lava flow was moving down the hills and igniting at the water’s edge.”

His writing is charged throughout with a forensic energy and all the blank hostility of an operating theatre – turning the page sometimes feels like making the first cut at an autopsy. Super Cannes reveals itself in the white light that a dentist uses to direct the drill; the light of the blood lamp.

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2 responses to “‘Ballardian’ – Super Cannes

  1. Another exquisite review. The link you make between the blood lamp and Ballard’s writing is perfect. I am intrigued that the sources of light you mention are all so harsh and artificial – a way of strengthening the darkness of the novel which seems powerful in its naturalness perhaps? There is so much to appreciate in your writing here – wonderful touches.

    • I think light in the novel functions as a threatening – almost malevolent – force in its own right, in the same way as one often feels nervous, even guilty, under severe examination. It’s a particularly insidious inversion. There is also a sense in which Ballard, being a sort of writer-provocateur, has a spotlight trained upon the reader, I think, and demands that we undergo the same critical self-examination we give the characters. It’s an unnerving book.

      Thanks again for the comment. It’s great to feel read. :)

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