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Running Wild
J.G. Ballard
Flamingo paperback £6.99

review by Paul Higson

Call me precocious but I recall as a schoolboy scribbling the words, 'There is no such thing as sanity just varying degrees of insanity.' I heard those words virtually ad verbatim in Claude Chabrol's film Le Boucher in a television transmission (or at least read them in the subtitles) several years later and realised that I must have been onto something. In The Guardian's Review supplement of 19 February 2005, Lisa Appignanesi in her piece on Adam Phillips 'Going Sane' writes how "sanity is at best an elusive concept," whereas, she is to add, the subject of insanity has an entire science devoted to it. Everything has to have its antonym no matter how far back down the road it may have been deserted. In Paul Dickson's 1982 book A Connoisseur's Collection Of Old And New, Weird And Wonderful, Useful And Outlandish Words, in a chapter given over to rare opposites, there is a near pointlessness to some of the featured words, such as monoglot (one who speaks only one language) or nullibicity (the state of being nowhere). Sanity is difficult to describe as it is characterless and to live a life of normalcy would be maddening to anyone except, notionally therefore in reality, to the mad. On such slender threads cocoons may well thrash.

J.G. Ballard's Running Wild centres on a major incident at Pangbourne village, a walled community protecting a handful of society's wealthy. The adults, security personnel, maids, au pairs, private teachers and chauffeurs are slaughtered one Saturday morning and the children vanished, clues as to the culprits and the whereabouts of the abducted children a mystery. Not too great a mystery... you will have probably cinched it before this sentence can be brought to a full stop. Dr Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Advisor with the Metropolitan police has a high profile study of the Hungerford massacre under his belt when he is invited in to independently conclude the unthinkable truth. Ballard is insulting in his attempts to bury the obvious direction the plot will take. The 'twist' is even less of a surprise after the murder of Jamie Bulger. Ballard could not have anticipated that press coverage that came with that and it proved children capable of the most appallingly callous acts. Their actions that Bootle day have yet to be given a full explanation and we may never get it. It is the case in kind here. In Running Wild the children are older, the crimes colder. An ordered, healthy, want for nothing lifestyle, time-managed to attain the results that see fulltime parental approval leave no space for even a minor infraction or rebellion. The id must out dramatically. It is catharsis on an entirely new plane. But without the words coming out of the mouths of the children, it is reduced to the unsatisfactory speculation of the investigating adults. In taking too long to reach the obvious conclusion, we tend not to be able to trust their results.

Ballard is clumsy. It is late in the proceedings that one realises the author is being satirical. Satire is a very different branch of humour from comedy. In comedy there is the onus on the writer to create laughter whereas in satire it can be laughter or smiles. I found little of either here. Neither did previous reviewers who found it an alarming read. Not I. As a whodunit it is grindingly painful. The slow-wittedness of the protagonists does not hold muster in a world where there are boy soldiers and the media have a fondness for killer children. It shouldn't be that far from the psychiatrist's imagination.

There are moments of inspired humour, offering more promising directions for the tale that never taken. "Last night the BBC's Panorama programme even speculated that a group of long term unemployed from the north of England had come down to the leafy Thames Valley in search of jobs and had been provoked by the ostentatious display of privilege and prosperity into a spasm of mindless rage." Now that would have been a daring shot for a novel. One of the children publishes a newsletter called the 'Pangbourne Pang', with a circulation of 13 (one for each household) and headlines of diminishing noteworthiness like "Egg boils in three minutes" or "Staircase leads to second floor" (Escher would sob). It can be nominally exciting when Ballard incorporates real news events and locations and the most fluent and interesting episode is that in which an abduction takes place in Great Ormand Street Children's Hospital.

The impression with this read is that it was raced out, perhaps to capitalise on then recent events. In attempting to write it in a more unusual format the story loses out to a better possible approach. J.G. Ballard is an arch experimentalist, but on the strength of the few books of his that I have read his experiments rarely have any conclusively positive result. Whether it is hijacking Burroughs' collage technique for The Atrocity Exhibition or mixing Conrad with a science fiction threat for The Crystal World, the finished work never really sums up terribly well. Ballard is one of those infuriating figures better at being themselves than at presentation through their work. Mel Brooks and John Landis are far funnier in person than their films have ever been. Likewise Ballard is a better off-the-cuff commenter than he is a fantasy novelist. At 105 pages it was possible for me to grab this at closing time from the library and return the book at opening time the next day. With an average of 200 words per full page this is a 20,000-word novel and at the very least might inspire aspirant authors to try with shorter form novels instead of impressing with an epic tome that doesn't work. This is hardly the classic announced on the cover. An unimportant and, thankfully, quick read.
Running Wild by J.G. Ballard

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Running Wild


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