Friday, 11 November 2016

Kingdom Come - J G Ballard

Kingdom Come, from 2006, was Ballard's last novel. It ploughs his usual field - suburban dystopia, As usual, his principal characters are mundane men and women offered just a glimpse of something higher. In High Rise the driving force was class division, the castes rigorously separated by floor, In Kingdom Come everyone is the same class - the amorphous middle class that inhabits the soulless, faceless dormitory towns around the M25. The totem to which they aspire is the shopping mall, the giant Metro Centro which dominates the fictional township of Brooklands. Even as our outsider, Richard Pearson (a typically anonymous name) pitches up, the dream is beginning to sour. Some lunatic opened fire on the mall shoppers thronging the atrium, Richard's estranged father, a retired airline pilot, is among the dead.

Richard has nothing better to do - he has just lost his job in adverstising alongside his marriage - so he stays on in Brooklands. He stays to settle his father's affairs there but ends up moving into the old man's flat. He gradually gets drawn in to suburban life. He meets various locals - solicitor, doctor, policewoman, He meets David Cruise, the minor celebrity who helms the Metro Centre's cable TV channel. He worked with Cruise in the old days. Richard has ideas for making Cruise's onscreen persona more compelling...

Ballard's problem is that his vision of the near future is already out of date. He thought that consumerism was rotting the public psyche whereas it was always unrestricted credit that made us sick. The banks were allowed to count debt as profit on the fatuous premise that it would someday be repaid. Only two years after Ballard published - a year or less before he died - the truth was revealed to the world. Malls like the Metro Centre were built on foundations of sand and how the economists and entrepreneurs wish we could be seduced back through the doors.

The other problem is that Richard Pearson is not really an outsider. He is a member of the glitzy London elite with his fancy flat in Chelsea and his classic Jensen car. Brooklands is the creation of people like him, the place where they decant the people they don't want to live next door. For people like Pearson the M25 isn't how the poor folk get into inner London, it's how the residents of inner London bypass the suburbs. Pearson virtually drips contempt and we can't avoid the conclusion that it's a contempt entirely reflecting that of his creator. Take the opening para:
The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world...
The plot, such as it is, is predictable, the twists predictable. Ballard is concerned not with his story but with his thesis and as such both suffer. The odd thing is, you can't stop reading, a measure of Ballard's deceptively prosaic style. In that sense Kingdom Come is a fitting coda to a fifty-year career, however it brings nothing new to the table.


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