Critical Writings -> Academic Journals -> Newpaper Articles & Reviews> Books

Articles and Reviews: BOOKS

Kingdom Come
By J. G. Ballard

(4th Estate, £17.99 stg, H/B)


James Graham Ballard is by now, thankfully, an institution, simply by sticking around long enough, and not giving up. At 76, Kingdom Come is his twenty-seventh work of original fiction (short story collections as well as novels). He has even, like many artists whose imaginative world is so singularly their own that its signature is instantly recognisable, and could not be mistaken for anyone else’s, had the honour of having his surname adjectivised, "Ballardian" being defined in the Collins English Dictionary as "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in JG Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments".

Appearing in the early ’60s, Ballard’s first fictions The Drowned World and The Drought focussed on the fallout from ecological disasters, like global warming and melting ice caps, at a time when such terms were not commonplaces of public discourse. This gave way in the ’70s, with Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise, to explorations of the downside of technological advances. Since the mid-’90s, with Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People, his concerns have shifted to the perils of consumerism and the persistence of violence, driven by the twin ideas that consumerism creates an appetite which can only be satisfied by fascism, and that humans are a primate species with an unbelievable need for violence. These themes are restated in his new novel. Is it possible that Ballard is starting to repeat, rather than extend, himself? Perhaps, but maybe that is because he thinks we are not listening to his jeremiads on the myth of progress. After all, he has always been prophetically ahead of the game, and it took rather a long time for his previous prognostications to be taken up by the general populace.

 

Back

 
 

Of course, this mighty oeuvre has been subsumed under the catch-all genre term ‘science fiction’, despite the fact that it has little to do with travels in space or time, or alien invasions. Like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, Ballard was never imagining worlds hundreds of light years from now, but simply extrapolating from what contemporary events, and setting it 15 minutes in the future. This is why their dystopian visions have such forceful predicative relevance.

Which brings us to Kingdom Come. Richard Pearson, recently divorced, is a well-to-do but currently unemployed ad-man, who has come out from his comfortable Chelsea apartment to Brooklands, a motorway town on the western rim of the M25, ‘a terrain of inter-urban sprawl, a zone of dual carriageways and petrol stations where there were no cinemas, churches or civic centres, and the endless billboards advertising a glossy consumerism sustained the only cultural life.’ His father has been fatally wounded at the Metro-Centre, a vast shopping mall in the centre of this apparently peaceful town, when a deranged mental patient opened fire on a crowd of shoppers, and Pearson is here to wrap up the old man’s affairs. When the main suspect is released without charge, thanks to the dubious testimony of self-styled pillars of the community - the doctor who treated his father on his deathbed, the local headmaster, the patient’s psychiatrist - Pearson suspects that there is more to his father's death than meets the eye, a more sinister element lurking behind the pristine facades of the labyrinthine mall.

Determined to unravel the mystery, Pearson soon realises that the Metro-Centre, with its round-the-clock cable TV channel and its sponsored sports clubs, lies at the very heart of his father's death. Consumerism rules the lives of everyone in the motorway towns, assuaging their emptiness and boredom. Metro-Centre shoppers transmogrify into vigilantes, uniforming themselves in St George’s Cross t-shirts. Nightly sports events provide excuses for post-match rioting, as these well-organised hooligans terrorise the streets, set on purging the area of its Eastern European and Asian immigrant communities. ‘Snobby middle-class people’, long-time residents who disdain the intrusion of the Metro-Centre on their previously tranquil lives in leafy Surrey, are also a target.

Convinced that a new kind of democracy is afoot, ‘where we vote at the cash counter, not the ballot box’, and that ‘Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people’, Pearson joins the movement as a propagandist, using his professional skills to write TV ads featuring the chat show anchorman who has emerged as the people’s messiah, all the while believing that under this cover he can get nearer to the real story of what lay behind his father’s killing. When the cable host, who was the original intended target, is seriously wounded in an assassination attempt, the consumer fascists make hostages of fellow-shoppers and take refuge inside the Metro-Centre, as police lay siege outside. The whole thing ends in a suitably apocalyptic conflagration.

If you think all this sounds paranoiacly far-fetched, or even just like something that might conceivably happen over there in materialistic England but never here in cute little compassionate Ireland, just take a trip out to that monstrosity in Dundrum, where willing slaves serve the devotees of the new religion. We are stuck in the middle of an Anglo-American phenomenon, where it doesn’t matter how many Iraqi babies we kill, as long as we defend our way of life and our right to have whatever we want, while our so-called ‘maverick’ columnists and social commentators compose television documentary odes to the glories of choice and the joys of consumerism. As for those who argue that, ‘Well, sure isn’t it better than the emigration in the ’50s and the unemployment in the ’80s?’, they never seem to consider that when the pendulum swings, it always goes just as far in the other direction. As Philip Larkin, another Englishman who was highly unimpressed with what passes for progress, wrote in ‘Homage to a Government’: Our children will not know it’s a different country/All we can hope to leave them now is money.


First published in The Sunday Independent


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home
Biography
Fiction
Critical Writings
Travel Writings
Awards