Book Review – Kingdom Come, J G Ballard

24Jan10

Kingdom Come

J G Ballard

Harper Perennial 2007, ISBN 978-0-00-723247-5

A gunman opens fire in a shopping mall. Not a terrorist, apparently, but a madman with a rifle. Or not, as he is mysteriously (and quickly) set free without charge . . .

One of the victims is the father of Richard Pearson, unemployed advertising executive and life-long rebel. Now he is driving out to Brooklands, the apparently peaceful town on the M25 which has at its heart the very shining shoppers’ paradise where the shooting happened – the Metro-Centre.

Then the main suspect is released – thanks to the testimony of self-styled pillars of the community like the doctor who treated Richard’s father on his deathbed. Richard, determined to unravel the mystery, starts to believe that something deeply sinister lurks beneath the pristine facades of the labyrinthe mall, its 24-hour cable TV and sports club . . .

I don’t know if one ever ‘enjoys’ reading a Ballard novel – the experience is always too unsettling to be truly enjoyable, as if being confronted by a mirror that only shows ones weaknesses and flaws and puts the most unpleasant parts of one’s character on display. That said, his writing is always tight, compelling and thought provoking, and this novel is no exception.

In Kingdom Come, he conjures up a totally believable, distorted version of our society, a grotesque dystopia that plays up all the worst elements of our society to show us sleepwalking uncaring into a fascist state. His vision of a society bored and satiated strikes a chord, and the malevolent response of consumerism (as represented by the Metro-Centre) to this threat to its perpetuation is made more frightening because it is believable. Replacing boredom with a sense of purpose and identity built around retail with a scarcely concealed undercurrent of violent madness, the resulting fanatical loyalty the Centre generates triggers a tidal wave of violence against those who either choose to exclude themselves from the Centre, or are excluded from it by social or financial constraints.  What is most frightening about this, is that there is no reason to it, no underlying political message that would categorise the fascist or nazi states of the past – it is entirely without substance but still bears all the features and characteristics of a fascist state, but self-regulating and powered from the bottom-up. No organisation, no bureaucracy, no message, no agenda other than consumerism itself, and no leader save the figurehead – a daytime tv chat-show host who is little more than an everyman simulacra. As a portrayal of a society spiralling quickly out of control, this is a powerful image and should serve as a big wake-up call.

The opposition to the monster is ambiguous at best, centring around a group of middle-class elitists who see their privileged positions being undercut by the Metro-Centre. They are both repelled and attracted to the Centre, eventually drawn into its web and destroyed by it, one way or another, with the exception of the main character, Richard Pearson. But even he doesn’t escape unscathed. In search of his father – absent through his childhood – as much as for his father’s murderer, he comes across initially as a rather passive character, adrift and bewildered by the maze of apparent conspiracies surrounding both the mall and his father’s murder. “Always let the road decide . . .” he says at the start, and that seems to characterise his drift through Part 1 – he is moved from one place to another by the other characters, each with their own hazy agendas, whilst he attempts to make sense of what’s going on, though his efforts never feel fully focussed. It’s only the the second part of the book that he takes a more active role, and in some ways his choice seems strange. Whilst being fully aware of what his actions will provoke, he nevertheless embarks on a role as the chat-show host’s (David Cruise) ‘media advisor’, putting Cruise in position with a well-devised campaign to become the ‘voice’ of the movement simmering under the surface. It seems a strange path for him to take – fully aware that fomenting the storm of violence beneath the bored community will result in a backlash against ‘outsiders’, he still goes ahead with it, despite the fact that he is appalled by the level of violence that already exists in the first part of the book. Is it an attempt to identify himself with his father? Is it a rebellion against middle-class complacency and elitism? Is it an attempt to show how pointless central government has become in terms of regulating society, when morals matter less than economic prosperity? Is it because he needs to ‘belong’ somewhere, rootless and adrift as he is? It’s hard to tell, but the outcome is as damaging to Richard as it is to everyone else and in the end he is lucky to escape with his life.

It’s a disturbing vision of how we could end up, and the political edge can’t be underplayed. It is biting and painful to read, because it is so readily convincing – is this an exaggeration of one aspect of society, played out to its extreme end, or is it a kind of prophecy, a warning to us all? Perhaps both, perhaps neither, but it is an unflinching expose of our society, and it is absolutely an unflattering reflection of our times, and that makes it worth reading.

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One Response to “Book Review – Kingdom Come, J G Ballard”

  1. 1 Erin

    On second thought, maybe I won’t add him to my TBR list. I’m not wild about disturbing. The news is depressing enough without my recreational reading being more of the same!


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