It’s appropriate that the first book I picked from my shelves after Denis Healey’s gripping insights into the issues confronting the UK from the late 1930s to the 1980s was JG Ballard’s last novel Kingdom Come (2006)
I am not a great fan of novels – biographies and histories have for me much more depth and integrity - although I do admire various proponents of the short story (such as William Trevor and Carol Shields. Recently I came across a beautiful (American) edition of the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis - examples of which you can find here
But Ballard was a real original – “dystopian” is the adjective used to convey the apocalyptic element of his themes.
As someone who has wanted to bomb the new gigiantic shopping malls which have been sprouting all over Sofia in the last 5 years and slowly killing the lively local shops, I really take to the theme of Kingdom Come
Ballard's central idea is that consumerism slides into fascism when politics simply gives the punters what they want, becoming a matter of consumer-style choices, choosing not to have a mosque next door, for example. Along the way, there's an almost satirical indictment of contemporary life…... 'This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity,' says Richard Pearson (its central character – an advertising agent - whose father has been shot in the Mall): 'In short, the town was an end state of consumerism. I liked it and felt a certain pride that I had helped to set its values.'
If the (shopping) mall is evil, its nostalgic opponents - a secretive cabal of locals, one of whom bombs Pearson's car - are little better. Their leading light is a fascistic reactionary of the 'kingdom of Surrey' variety. Pearson himself, although relieved to find his father isn't the Nazi sympathiser he seemed, puts his talents behind an actor turned politician to whip up the new mall fascism, regretting the racist attacks but loving it all as an exercise in PR and marketing.
The book is mired in ambivalence and the only things it takes a clear line against are racism and sport. Sport is 'the big giveaway' of dangerous boredom: 'Give them violent hamster wheels like football and ice hockey. If they still need to let off steam, burn down a few newsagents.' Ballard's characters are prone to improbable speechifying: the new landscape of retail parks, airports and motorways might seem like hell to the old middle class, but 'that's the Hampstead perspective, the view from the Tavistock Clinic. The shadow of Freud's statue lies across the land, the Agent Orange of the soul'.
The book is a vehicle for concepts, one-liners and poetic fragments: 'elective psychopathy' will replace war and sex; 'Violence is the true poetry of governments'; 'Think of the future as a cable TV programme going on for ever'.
My favourite is excerpt is -
People accumulate emotional capital as well as cash in the bank. And they need to invest these emotions in a leader figure. They don’t want a jackbooted fanatic ranting on a balcony. They want a TV host sitting with a studio panel, talking quiety about what matters in their lives. It’s a new kind of democracy, where we vote at the cash counter, not the ballot box. Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people. New fantsasies, new dreams and dislikes, new souls to heal. For some reasons its called shopping. But its really the purest kind of politics……..
Ballard itemises a modern Britain of Malls, barcodes, CCTV, stores and barbecues, but the book has a less human engagement with ordinary life than this suggests. It's the idea of modern reality invoked in abstract, conjured up as the background for more obsessive rituals of Ballard's own. Hi-tech surroundings lead to violent behaviour, until the mall is overtaken by apocalyptic .