Coincidentally, our launch date here was the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death. He passed on April 16, 1859, in Cannes. 150 years and 3 days later, J.G. Ballard, author of creepazoid milennial dystopia Super-Cannes (2000) , died. The first line from Super-Cannes reads as follows:
The first person I met at Eden-Olympia was a psychiatrist, and in many ways it seems only too apt that my guide to this intelligent city in the hills above Cannes should have been a specialist in mental disorders.
Wikipedia , take it away:
Quickly bored with life in Eden-Olympia (“the kind of adolescent society where you define yourself by the kind of trainers you wear”), Paul decides to investigate the events that led to Greenwood’s death, and begins walking in his footsteps. He soon discovers that just beneath the calm, well-mannered surface of his new home lies an underworld of crime, deviant sex, and drugs that seems to be prospering and growing. And all the residents at Eden-Olympia seem not only to be aware of this, but to encourage and welcome this underworld, as it provides them with a means to relate to something other than their jobs, and by entering that world to let go of the social restraints and etiquette that define their lives.
Paul discovers that Eden-Olympia’s resident psychiatrist, Wilder Penrose, is eagerly encouraging his patients (and there are many of them) to indulge themselves in activities involving sex and violence, as a (successful) cure for their symptoms of stress. Says Penrose: “Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and always has been. At times, it grasps entire nations in its grip and sends them through vast therapeutic spasms. No drug in the world is that powerful.”
Well. When therapeutic beastliness is ruled out of politics, guess where it goes? The reader can guess why Super-Cannes would register on my radar screen. From time to time, however, I do stop thinking about the trajectory of our charismatic transgressions, therapeutic remissions, and legalistic interdicts, to wonder about our prospects for the novel, tomorrow and today. Distressingly, not only does it seem as if great tomes like Democracy in America are likely to go unread and unwritten; it seems that not-so-great novels are born to die young, too, and that Tocqueville’s pronouncements on the limits of literature in America have a weird posthumous renaissance abrewing. Are some of our democratic defects asserting themselves in a way that makes it harder to produce Tocquevilles on the one hand and Ballards on the other? Or is it simply difficult regardless to fuse the best of both writers — to produce the sort of person who can write with a poetic yet realist accuracy about our virtues and our vices, our hope and our doom? Maybe both. If so, and this gets back to the heart of the matter, is the book that that sort of person will write a work of fiction or nonfiction? I know that several bloggers at this very site have good things to say about what novels can tell us that nonfiction can’t — names like Percy and Robinson come to mind — but when I look around for the Future of the Great Novel, I am, at least tentatively, stumped. Perhaps these things are just apt to pop up out of ‘nowhere’.
PLUS: For more on what I had assumed was indeed a paradigm case, see Peter on All The Sad Young Literary Men.