RUSHING TO PARADISE
Searing, visceral tragicomedy of epic proportions, this novel of a cult leader and her followers on a Pacific island is Ballard's triumphant synthesis of the range of themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career (The Kindness of Women, 1991, etc.). The story begins as an updated, ecological version of Treasure Island when Nell, 16, meets the scruffy Dr. Barbara Rafferty as she's haranguing tourists in Honolulu about French plans to resume nuclear testing on Saint-Esprit atoll. At first Ballard treats us to a wacked-out modern comedy as a ship is found -- courtesy of a media magnate whose cameras turn everything into a live TV program -- and staffed by a multicultural crew: a Hawaiian nationalist, Japanese pilgrims from Hiroshima, a pharmaceutical millionaire with messianic impulses, filmmakers, a French air hostess. Later, instead of being a setback, the revelation that Dr. Barbara lost her medical license for easing a dozen elderly patients to their graves welds Neil and the others closer to her, setting in motion a descent into our modern nightmare -- the egotistical fanaticism that seems to pervert all movements, faiths, ideals. As Dr. Barbara transforms herself from a Jane Goodall-like savior of the albatross to a leader of an island biosphere for all endangered species, Nell grows increasingly complicit with her unspecified agenda. Lured by a psychosexual undertow into her powerful personality -- entranced by her ability to stage conflict and renewal out of the raw materials provided by a media-saturated world -- Neil and the others turn Saint-Esprit into a commune, an environmental gulag, a killing field. Into their maw come visiting hippies, sailors, anthropologists, do-gooders, fodder for Dr. Barbara's final experiment: an all-female society with Neil its lone overworked stud, his death, it would seem, a foregone conclusion once a younger, stronger male appears. As fast-paced as a thriller, and always distinguished by Ballard's hallucinatory clarity and precise observations: a fiercely contrarian novel that's both Paradiso and Inferno. Probably Ballard's best and most accessible yet.