Running Wild by JG Ballard
Published by Fourth Estate
It says a lot about the sociological and pathological commonplaces that have emerged in my lifetime that I should not be able to suspend disbelief while reading JG Ballard’s novella Running Wild. It is not that the mass killing incident that is at the centre of the book is just too unbelievable and therefore a hindrance to immersing oneself in the story; it is only too predictable – such that, to read this story, first published in 1988, is rather to be unable to comprehend the unwillingness of the experts working on the case to attribute the crime to a group of privileged youngsters.
In the 1980s, comparable attacks would not have been as familiar to readers, with perhaps only the apparently motiveless Hungerford killings haunting recent British memory (these are referred to in Running Wild). This only reinforces the widely held view of the novelist as an eerily reliable forecaster of the heavy weather to come.
Investigating the near simultaneous murder of thirty-two adult residents of a gated community and the subsequent disappearance of their children, psychiatrist Richard Greville raises the possibility of the teenagers as perpetrators only as a brief footnote amid a litany of possible causes being bandied about by the police and media. Early readers of the book who might well have been surprised and shocked by the conclusion that Greville eventually draws, might have thought Ballard to be working in a grimly hysterical, speculative mode. For those of us who have spent adolescence and adulthood with the names ‘Columbine’ and ‘Isla Vista’ signalling a depressing shift towards deadly assaults on large numbers of people; the era of 9/11, Raoul Moat, Jihadi John, school killers, suicide bombers, countless ‘lone wolves’ – the children are all too readily pointed to.
This was my own experience reading Running Wild in 2016. To beat the characters to the punch in identifying the culprits so quickly – on page three no less – may spoil the book as far as it is intended to function as a mystery thriller. But one does not approach Ballard like one might a book by Agatha Christie. Being short on length, there would be little chance for Ballard to take us through multiple twists and turns until throwing us a curveball and closing the case. What Running Wild allows contemporary readers the opportunity to reflect more deeply on is the conditions and mentality that might contribute towards such devastating incidents.
These questions are as urgent as ever, and despite the repeated recourse to the phrase ‘unimaginable’ among TV panellists and onlookers, and the desperate incomprehension of journalists unable to find any clear – or readily admissible – causal link, recent works of philosophy and memoir have treated such horrific attacks with more insight. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in his book Heroes has attempted to diagnose the rise in mass shootings, bombings and suicides in the loneliness, narcissism and humiliation that have arisen in the technologically driven, ruthlessly capitalistic, internet age in western societies. More pertinent to Ballard’s focus in Running Wild, Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine high school student Dylan Klebold has recently published an account of the infamous school shooting that saw her son and his friend Eric Harris mercilessly kill numerous classmates and staff – from the point of view of the parent who feels that they have provided a supportive, ‘normal’ middle class upbringing.
The question that torments family, community and society alike, the question that fuels newspaper editorials, pundits’ prattling, social media messages and organises the clinical business of criminal investigations is: why? In the aftermath of such events, it is understandable that the instincts of many will be to imagine a world in which such shocking and murderous acts might be erased. But while answers might not be easy to come by, or welcome, it will not do to ‘unimagine’ that which has happened, can happen, will happen again. With Running Wild, Ballard was willing to run his imagination along the harder edges of human existence and use them to sharpen his artistic vision and his social commentary in the process.