Something from the security of every man's life

Running Wild

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, April 14, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

That the task of shocking people becomes more difficult over time is a truism borne out, broadly speaking, by the trajectories of popular culture: yesterday's X-rated films are today's ironic artefacts; the antics of Kenneth Williams or Joe Orton are now interesting commentaries on their time; and books whose themes were once wholly beyond the pale are now ripe for discussion at A level. Nonetheless, it's surprising to find that the disturbing plot twist of Running Wild, a foray by the iconoclastic Ballard into the world of the rich middle class, can be guessed halfway through the third page.

When the inactive CCTV cameras of a secure estate near Pangbourne are the mute witnesses of the brutal, organized killing of all the adults, and the abduction of their children, the desperate denizens of the Home Office call in a maverick psychiatric adviser to solve a problem which months of departmental work couldn't crack. So far, so Lynda-La-Plante; but as the novella progresses it's clear that this particular suspense thriller is hardly Saturday-night ITV fare. Indeed, the book strikes to the heart of that genre's assumptions---all nonces are scum, the loose cannons are the true lawmakers, and if the guilty don't get their just desserts then they're at least verifiably guilty---and might cause the average viewer of The Bill to slam the book closed in horror, or at any rate write a jolly angry letter of complaint.

Unfortunately, the catch for Ballard is that the audience that might be genuinely disturbed by this, a deep excursion into the farthest reaches of id similar to the terrible revenge wrought by Saki's Sredni Vashtar, are unlikely to read his books; those who appreciate a decent evening's account of the churning, shifting sands upon which civilization's trembling castle is built, on the other hand, are now so post-Paedogeddon that the writer needs to be either more subtle or more provocative than this. Even accounting for its age, this book was published at around the time when David Lynch was already exposing the rotten timber of the lower foot or two of America's white picket-fences; while it's far more approachable it's also less bizarre and less dangerous than other examples of the genre. The biggest shock, therefore, is how unshocking it really is.