APRIL 3, 2016
OBSESSION IS AN EARMARK of J. G. Ballard’s canon. His protagonists consistently demonstrate obsessive qualities, and the degree to which Ballard fixates on and returns to certain themes in his novels and stories is similarly obsessive. His final four novels, for instance, are all set in gated communities where the “boredgeois” rich seek social and psychological release from the monotony of everyday consumer-capitalist life through various modes of crime and interstitial violence. Christopher Fowler prefaces his new book The Sand Men with an aphorism from one of these novels, Super-Cannes: “The ultimate gated community is a human being with a closed mind.” Readers familiar with Ballard’s work will likely consider this aphorism in terms of inner space, the surreal psychological landscape that distinguishes so many of his stories and most of his novels. In Super-Cannes, these words are uttered by Dr. Wilder Penrose, the resident psychiatrist of a gated community called Eden-Olympia. A mad (social) scientist and provocateur, Penrose facilitates the crime waves that “liberate” Eden-Olympians from the shackles of ennui. Psychiatrists and scientists like Penrose pervade Ballard’s fiction, and I expected Fowler to appropriate or extrapolate similar Ballardian characters as well as themes. Despite being set in a type of gated community and marketed as a Ballardian novel, however, The Sand Men is impressively un-Ballardian, even while exhibiting some tropes and gestures that will be familiar to his readers. It is a fine novel, but reading it reminded me just how unique and innovative Ballard’s writing is, and I found myself less interested in what Fowler was doing than what he could (but not necessarily should) be doing. At the same time, Fowler presents a more compelling representation of gender dynamics than Ballard ever did. In fact, The Sand Men is essentially a novel about gender relations and the oppressive, destructive hammer of patriarchy, especially as it relates to race and class.
Set in near-future Dubai, The Sand Men focuses on a family of three ex-pats, Roy and Lea Brook and their 15-year-old daughter Cara. Roy is an architect outsourced by the Arab proprietors of a super-rich resort called Dream World to correct faults in the resort’s main hotel (soon to be the tallest hotel on earth). At the outset of the novel, his family has just relocated from London to a gated community, Dream Ranch, reserved for foreign executives. Dream World has been under construction for some time with a deadline for completion in three months. Construction is compared to terraforming a new planet. According to Roy, it is an effort in “future-proofing the country.” “Dream World sticks way out into the sea and weighs over a million tons, plus it has to withstand everything from earthquakes and gulf storms to tidal waves, so they’ve got to get it right.” In the vein of Ballard’s High-Rise, Dream World is completely self-contained, offering every conceivable service and facility needed for daily life to its wealthy residents. Lea has reservations about this exclusive “playground,” one that hardly anybody will be able to afford and that by default walls out the majority of the world’s population. Roy brushes her off, contending that it is a stepping stone: “The Russians and Chinese own the franchise but guess who gets most of the money? Two thirds of the investment returns to the UAE. This is the flagship resort that’ll prove the model can work. Then they can build others all around the world.”
Originally from New York, Roy and Lea come to Dream World on the cusp of a strained relationship. Their relocation to the Middle East is partly intended to be a fresh start in the wake of Roy’s infidelity. Lea worked as a freelance writer for a London magazine. She is a strong, intelligent, and capable woman, yet she is also undermined by Roy and by being subjected to the dynamics of conventional heterosexual male-female relationships. Asked about her writing, she says: “Once I wanted to be a famous reporter, but I ended up getting married and writing women’s features. It wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind.” She wants to write for Dream World’s local magazine Gulf Coast, and history continues to repeat itself: Every effort she makes to tell the truth and articulate something meaningful is squashed by male authority. Men preside over every aspect of Dream World, and they want old-school docility from Lea and the other wives in the community — they should raise children, be homemakers, and keep quiet. At first, Lea attempts “to become someone she hated,” but she can’t maintain the role of Stepford Wife for long, and after several of her neighbors are killed in mysterious accidents, she becomes a detective, suspecting nefarious motives.
It is primarily through the vehicle of Lea that we learn about the families of the Dream World elite as she meets and interacts with them. Above all, we learn about how misogynistic and patriarchal things are, how men have “all the power here,” and how women are “to be humored and ignored.” Fowler provides ample exposition and backstory during the first half of the novel about individual characters and the resort. Lea is by far the roundest and most important character; Cara is a close second with all of her teenage angst. Their mutual discontent threads into anxiety when Milo Melnik, a retired Dream World architect, dies in a random hit-and-run. After several more people are killed in dubious ways, Lea discovers it is because they were too outspoken and negative about Dream World. As Milo tells her shortly before being taken out, “you thought you were making an entry into an earthly paradise, but you’re slowly finding out that you’ve landed in a snakepit.”
The snake pit is as gendered as it is classist and racist mainly in light of the egregious divide between Dream World executives and the Orwellian proles hired to build it. These migrant laborers are segregated; they are not allowed to eat with the architects, technicians, or engineers during the workday, and they “live in the dorms on the other side of the compound wall” in poor conditions. Nor are they allowed to use the beaches or go into town to shop at the vast supermalls, which they can’t afford anyway. “People should not be divided by the colour of their skin,” Lea says to one of the workers’ supervisors, Rashad Karmeel, who rescues her when she ventures onto the wrong side of the fence in search of clues. “They are divided by money first, Mrs. Brook,” he replies. The relationship between the proles and the inner (native) and outer (expatriate) parties exposes the volatile nature of globalization and the retroactive behavior of the mega-bourgeois, who operate in line with the codes and morays of Victorians more than near-futurians. The Islamofascist tendencies of Middle Eastern society are exposed, but a case might also be made for the orientalization of that society by Fowler, who represents stereotypical Middle Eastern masculinity and misogyny from the perspective of a white Western male. That said, Fowler extrapolates The Sand Men into a realistic near-future in which the emergence of this stereotype is entirely plausible.
Lea’s next-door neighbor, Rachel Larvin, calls Dream World an “economic warzone” established on the foundation of “one big power-fucking male conspiracy.” She disappears, and her body is found in the wide-open desert; allegedly she locked herself out of her car and the ruthless heat immolated her. Lea knows that somebody staged her death, and, despite numerous warnings and deflections, she presses forward with her closet investigation. Finally she uncovers the truth: the real overlords of Dream World are not mere industrialists but a secret society of men called the Ka’al (a.k.a. “Men of the Sand”) that dates back to the first century CE. Far from the panoptic image of Big Brother, they are described as a
tribal settlement whose members were periodically wiped out due to public disapproval of their sacrificial practices. The Ka’al believed that prosperity could be assured by virgin slaughter. […] Rumors continued to persist throughout the 20th century that the Ka’al would return in a new, more commercial guise, and that the souls of the young would once again generate wealth for the old.
Dream World, then, is the Ka’al’s modern-day pot of gold — a consumer-capitalist utopia for men (and dystopia for women) built atop an ancient vault where the tribe used to convene. When Cara goes missing and it becomes apparent that Roy and his male colleagues may be part of the conspiracy, Lea goes in search of her, worrying that she will be sacrificed. But Cara and her friends, Lea finds out, have been involved in terrorist activity, planting bombs and trying to disrupt the completion of Dream World, a “multicapitalist venture” that “abuse[s] the poor to amuse the rich” and “drains more resources than an entire African nation uses in a year.” Ultimately, Cara wants to wake people up. She tells her mother:
We’re showing others what’s going on here. […] It’s a mechanism for protest. The next war will take place here, and you won’t even notice it. The stuff out there isn’t real. It’s a dream. You don’t see how far you’ve fallen. You’re terrified of just being a housewife but you have no dreams left.
Cara’s words hit home, but her naive liberal agenda turns out to be a setup. The neo-Ka’al wanted her and her friends to engage in violent protest so they could blame any disruptions on them, keeping the laborers from revolting. Lea goes on the lam with Cara, and in the end they split up, worrying that two “western females among all these men” will be caught. It is a bleak conclusion that suggests the Ka’al’s history of patriarchy will only grow more powerful in the future and one day dominate the world.
Fowler creates a hint of ambiguity about the Ka’al by cultivating what might be paranoia in Lea. Several characters try to convince her that she is delusional, and a psychiatrist diagnoses her as a paraphrenic “adept at reconfiguring events around her into any number of unifying conspiracy theories. … [S]he began to construct a series of intricately connected fantasies around various ‘key events’ … She entered a dream world of her own making and constantly found new evidence to support her life within this bubble of make-believe.” This echoes the fiction of Philip K. Dick, whose protagonists often find themselves unable to differentiate between objective reality and subjective fantasy. Ballard, too, thrives on this kind of ambiguity, but more subtly than Dick. By the end of The Sand Men, though, we get a clear sense that the Ka’al actually exists and that Lea is perfectly sane.
The press release for the novel says that The Sand Men “is a Ballardian twist on Desperate Housewives for the Gone Girl generation, set in a world of uncertainties and paranoia, where cultures clash and human universals are stripped bare.” Rather than being a twist, Fowler untwists Ballardian dynamics and lays them much flatter, simplifying what, in my view, no Anglophone writer has managed to do like Ballard. Fowler is at his most Ballardian when he describes the landscape of Dream World and the surrounding terrain; in fact, his prose flirts with the poetic, evoking the topographic imagery of Vermilion Sands and the novels that comprise his natural disaster trilogy, The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. On the first page of the first chapter, Fowler even appropriates one of Ballard’s favorite metaphorical descriptive terms, “geometry,” when he says that the “landscape was bare and unforgiving, a table-flat geometry of grey and yellow patches bordered by piles of breezeblocks.” Other Ballardian riffs are thematic and include the technologies of concrete and surveillance, the death of affect produced by mall culture, the anvil of obsession, and “boredgeois” behavior, ethics, and desires. None of these are developed in significant depth … and again, that’s fine. Fowler is a seasoned, prolific, and extremely talented author with over 40 books to his name, most prominently the Bryant & May series of detective novels. Ballard devotees and scholars may be let down by The Sand Men, which, while powerfully written and not altogether derivative, is a conventional narrative tailored for a mainstream readership. For me, the novel could have been significantly enhanced by a use of inner spatial tactics and aesthetics or at least a more innovative exploration of Lea’s psychological vicissitudes. Such an approach, however, would likely veer Fowler away from the safe house of his target audience.