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Kingdom Come (2006)Author: Simon Sellars • Sep 1st, 2006 •
“The suburbs dream of violence.”
From the 2006 Fourth Estate edition:
Richard Pearson, unemployed advertising executive and life-long rebel, is driving out to Brooklands, a motorway town on the A25. A few weeks earlier his father was fatally wounded at the Metro-Centre, a vast shopping mall in the middle of this apparently peaceful town, when a deranged mental patient opened fire on a crowd of shoppers. When the main suspect is released without charge thanks to the dubious testimony of self-styled pillars of the community — including Julia Goodwin, the doctor who treated his father on his deathbed — Richard 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, Richard soon realises that the Metro-Centre, with its round-the-clock cable channel and sports clubs, lies at the very heart of his father’s death. Consumerism rules the lives of everyone in the motorway towns and feeds the cravings of this bored community with its desperate need for something new, whatever the costs. Riots frequently terrorise the streets, immigrant communities are set upon by roving bands of hooligans and sports events mushroom into jingoistic political rallies. Gradually, Richard finds himself drawn into this world, caught up in the workings of the mall, exposed to the insides of the consumer dream, and starts upon dismantling this wayward vision his advertising career helped to found…
In this gripping, dystopian tour de force, J.G. Ballard holds up a mirror to middle England, reflecting an unsettling image of suburbia and revealing the darker forces at work beneath the gloss of consumerism and flag-waving patriotism.”
The negative notices this remarkable vision have received don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Ballard’s a man who admits he doesn’t read novels, instead devouring ‘invisible literature’: marginalia, copywriting, medical journals, psychiatric reports, Ikea catalogues, cereal boxes. He’s influenced by Freud, film noir, science fiction and Surrealist paintings; film, more than anything. To compare him with some literary type who practices the art of ‘tight plotting’ and ‘well-rounded protagonists’ is woefully inadequate. Reviewing KC in the Telegraph, David Robson wrote: ‘The plotting is clumsy … and the violence, integral to the whole design, belongs to the world of comic-strips’. Well, yes. Precisely. Honestly, do we still live in an age where popular culture is considered second-rate to the almighty ‘novel’? Funnily enough, I’m put in mind of my 78-year-old father, who refuses to watch The Simpsons because ‘cartoons are for kids’.
At least we have theorist Steven Shaviro, who has written the most insightful review of Kingdom Come to date, refreshingly free of the restraints of commercial media:
Kingdom Come has so far only been published in the UK, not the US. And it has gotten mostly negative reviews — even from speculative writers like Ursula LeGuin and M. John Harrison, who ought to know better. The book has been criticized for the fact that its plot and characters aren’t slick, catchy, and ‘well-constructed’ enough. But of course these are the wrong standards by which to judge Ballard. He writes genre fiction as social theory — and he remains, at age 76, one of the most acute social theorists that we have. His insights could not be communicated in the form of the artfully structured literary novel. His seeming repetitiveness, his clumsy prosaicness, and his insistence on a kind of pop-culture (so-called) ‘kitsch’ are necessary tools of insight. In a thoroughly Modernist way, his form coincides with his themes; though, as an anatomist of our “postmodern” condition, his forms/themes are such as the classic Modernists could never have imagined.”
Steven Shaviro. ‘Kingdom Come’.
Rick McGrath has also written a provocative review, from his own perspective as an ex-ad-man:
But what form does a non-message take? For Pearson, that’s easy: “Madness is the key to everything. Small doses, applied when no-one is really looking.”
Regardless of all the novel’s ranting about consumerism and violence and fascism, I find this marketing insight perhaps the most chilling prediction of Kingdom Come. Instinctive advertising – a direct message to the irrational, the purely emotional. It’s about using psychopathology, after all. It’s a chilling thought not because it could be a campaign as Ballard imagines it, but because it is a campaign which is currently being successfully employed by, oh, advertising for the fashion industry, Hollywood, political parties.
Rick McGrath. ‘Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Ads Be Run…’
And Ballardian contributor Pippa Tandy offers the following thoughts:
JGB is not Alan Sillitoe. There is little point in reading KC for direct equivalences to social conditions. Although he writes of the effects of consumerism, shopping malls and the obsession with sport, Ballard is not a realist writer. Although he makes reference to the notorious DuPont as the benefactor of a research wing of a mental asylum, (97) and uses as a chapter heading the expression ‘Exit Strategies’, has his protagonist speak of himself as only being good at ‘warming the slippers of late capitalism’, (9) and make other references to political and social realities of the past and present, this is not a direct socially realistic account of society. KC reiterates images that appear from his earliest work, images that are coded references to his earlier writing but which have another function. As in his other writing, they are a register of the psychic state of his society. It is not a question of whether his characters behave as ‘real’ people behave; KC is rather another myth of the near future, except that the near future is now on top of us. (And has been for a while, hardly Ballard’s fault!) Remember Ballard never felt like he needed to check the realist accuracy of his descriptions. You will recall that The Rockford Files and Kojak informed his understanding of America, a Thames Valley gravel pit supplies the lineaments of Cape Canaveral, and so on.
KC begins in the typical liminal setting of the Heathrow motorways, with a protagonist narrator who finds himself drawn into a maze of concrete and paranoia, who backs away from the reflected attenuation in his own mirrored face, who limps through the broken mallscape on a bandaged foot, a black comedy in which motorways and runways intersect, fugitives hide themselves as shop mannequins, the beach of a shopping mall echoes the beach of a nuclear test site, and a deracinated psychiatrist and mock Lemmy Caution move among the crowd. Ballard would probably not like to admit it, but he is doing something similar to Godard in Alphaville. He is using the materials of his time (shopping malls, sporting crowds, consumerism) as latent conditions. That is why it all seems a bit wrong when we try to match it all up. Like his other writing, this novel is Ballard’s attempt to bring vision to the present, to create, like the detonation in the Metro-Centre, a space in which a section of space-time had been erased, exposing a deep flaw in our collective dream.� (113-4)
And, just another point, for fun. Is not the description of the dead Cruise being wheeled around as a kind of totem figure, surrounded by grieving worshippers, very reminiscent of Mr Kurtz on his stretcher in Heart of Darkness?”
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