J G Ballard: Kingdom Come
People don’t riot in Surrey. They’re far more polite, and far more dangerous.
While I look forward to new books by many of my favourite authors, there is none that I looked forward to more than a new book by J G Ballard. He was one of the few writers who was writing consistently about how the future is going to look and not the science fiction, space travel, alien future but our future, the future that is almost upon us and, in his view, is already upon us though we cannot see it. For Ballard the most dangerous place in the world is not Baghdad, Kabul, Mogadishu or any other of the world’s hot spots in the news this week. The most dangerous place in the world is the suburbs of contemporary England. Racism, boredom, casual sex, recreational drug usage, rampant consumerism, polite and impolite violence are all grist to his mill but somehow the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
This book is set in Brooklands, a nondescript suburb of London, known primarily as the site of a now defunct major British motor racing circuit. Richard Pearson is an advertising executive who has just lost his job, ousted by his smarter ex-wife. (Interesting side note: some of the characters have names of famous people. Richard Pearson is the name of a relatively well-known British TV actor. We also have David Cruise, Tom Carradine (whom Ballard inadvertently names David Carradine on a couple of occasions) and Duncan Christie who, for British readers, will recall both Julie Christie and John Christie. Probably just coincidence.) He has also just learned that his father, a former airline pilot, has been shot in a large shopping mall. The gunman had, apparently, opened fire at random in the mall and Pearson Senior was one of the victims. Richard Pearson did not know his father well. His parents split up when he was young and he lived with his mother. When he arrives in Brooklands (from London), he soon learns two things – that the mall, called Metro-Centre, dominates the area in more ways than one and that the police have a suspect, a loner who is very much opposed to the mall, called Duncan Christie. However, before getting to Brooklands, he had stopped off in a neighbouring town where he had witnessed racist attacks, not the vicious skinhead attacks of the National Front, but polite middle class threats by people dressed in T-shirts with a St George’s Cross on them.
Christie is arrested and threatened and attacked by a mob but, eventually, three well-respected citizens step forward and say that he couldn’t have committed the crime, as they saw him in another part of the mall at the time of the attack. Pearson gradually realizes that there are three main groups operating in Brooklands. The first is the defenders of the mall and consumerism as a way of life. Indeed, as will see, the mall and all it stands for is a form of religion, replacing the traditional religion which has virtually died out. Many of these people are the St George’s Cross wearers he saw earlier. The second is the people who have lived in the area for years and are bitterly opposed to the mall and to the new residents and yearn for the old days. They are, of course, well-to-do and include senior members of the police. Finally, there are the immigrants – primarily South Asian and Eastern European. One and two hate each other and hate three. The immigrants are the victims of the other two. The question is, which of these groups were responsible for Pearson’s father’s death. Pearson sees these groups in action and gradually becomes aware of who is involved and their roles. After another attack on the mall – with a bomb placed in his, Pearson’s, car – Pearson’s advertising executive persona comes out and he joins forces with David Cruise, the former second-rate actor who has become the voice of the mall TV channel.
Nothing is obvious in Ballard. He hits brutally at his targets, which are virtually all of us (there are no innocent bystanders) and takes us in often unexpected directions. For Ballard, there is no doubt that we are witnessing the last throes of late-stage capitalism and it is turning into something else, which is not pretty. He tells his story very well but, through Richard Pearson, certainly no innocent bystander himself, he expresses his views which are less political than the views of an informed anthropologist or sociologist observing a collapsing society. If you want to know how we are going to fare and fail, you can do no better than read Ballard.
First published 2006 by Fourth Estate