Kingdom Come, the final novel by J.G. Ballard, was published in England in 2006. This week, it was released in America by W.W. Norton & Company.
The book straddles two genres that are tightly linked to each other. The first is British Self-Reflection. Britain, to British writers and filmmakers, seems to be endlessly fascinating. They stare into the mirror and, as if it were a funhouse distortion, they can’t quite figure out what they’re seeing. This leads to book after movie after song after poem of Brits wondering about what it’s like to be Brits. We should be thankful for this phenomenon, as it has given us definitive works by people such as George Orwell, Mike Leigh, Billy Bragg and Philip Larkin. Ballard’s best work belongs in that pantheon.
The second genre that Kingdom Come belongs to is Dystopian Present. While many writers of fiction that is concerned with the erosion of civility and society hedge their bets by setting their stories in the future, Ballard was always happy to speculate regarding the present. The world in Kingdom Come is now, but it’s now with subtle and terrifying tweaks and amplifications. Since so many practitioners of British Self-Reflection look at their country and see a place of gaping class chasms, suffocated emotions, and cancerous consumerism, it’s natural that the topic is a cousin to Dystopian Present. In fact, one might ask, how are they essentially different? It’s this simple distinction: British Self-Reflection contains within it a clear thread of affection for Old Blighty. “There are warts and foibles aplenty to England,” it says, “but they are our warts and foibles. These things define us.” Even violence, in the context of British Self-Reflection, is often romanticized and treated humorously. The soccer hooligan is at once a source of national shame and a kind of cuddly mascot. A work of Dystopian Present, however, does not have room for warmth. It’s all wailing klaxons and broken concrete in the stairways of abandoned council estates—that sort of thing. When these two modes of looking at Britain are overlaid, we get something close to the entire picture.
Kingdom Come is the story of Richard Pearson, a newly-fired advertising executive who leaves his posh, deteriorating London life to come to Brooklands, the suburban town where his father has, as the novel opens, just been shot dead by a mysterious sniper at a gargantuan local mall. This place, called the Metro-Centre or “the dome” by locals (in reference to the massive lighted dome atop it, which can be seen for miles around and which, in effect, illuminates the entire town) is a mall in the same way that the Titanic was a ship. It’s impossibly big, containing multiple hotels and grocery stores, a wave pool, and innumerable shops stretching down innumerable lanes. It’s a self-contained world. As Pearson quickly finds, the Metro-Centre is wreaking psychic havoc on Brooklands. He meets various people of local power (his father’s lawyer, a female police officer, an emergency room doctor named Julia who becomes—in a very Ballardian way—Pearson’s sort-of love interest, and the headmaster of the nearby school) all of whom profess at least disgust and at most hatred regarding the mall. On the other side, he meets Tom Carradine, the head of PR for the Metro-Centre, who takes him on a tour that gruesomely includes the hidden spot from which the gunman fired the shot that took Pearson’s father’s life. The majority of the townspeople comprise a host of faceless, nameless, nationalistic British men and women who rally around the mall as if it were a church, sporting club, and pub all wrapped up in one. They identify themselves by the wearing of shirts and carrying of banners featuring St. George’s Cross, the standard under which the Crusades were carried out. Caught in the middle of these two factions are the immigrant communities of Brooklands—mainly Indians, Bangladeshis, and Kosovars—who are undergoing increasingly brutal attacks on their homes and businesses.
A local man, the type that the average Brit might call a ‘nutter,’ has been arrested for the murder of Pearson’s father. The suspect’s name is Duncan Christie, and he is of mixed ethnicity, a diagnosed schizophrenic, and a mumbling shambles. In the manner of many fictional nutters, he is also a man who utters confused prophesies. Ballard, speaking through Pearson, describes Christie as “erratic and unfocused… a methadone addict forever emerging from rehab” with “a pair of unmatched trainers…” and “an infected ear piercing.” He is, Pearson / Ballard decides, “... an urban scarecrow designed to frighten away any circling security cameras.” When Christie and Pearson first meet, Christie, in typical holy fool fashion is trying to give away a pile of shoddy kitchen appliances for free by the side of a busy road. To give something away, to ask no price for a good, is, of course, in the shadow of the Metro-Centre, heresy.
Early in the book, Christie is acquitted of the charges of murder and mayhem against him. The question then becomes: Who done it, and why did they done it? Richard Pearson, who barely knew his airline pilot father, sets out to solve the crime. His first discovery of importance: His father’s flat is full of fascist accoutrements. The books on Hitler and Mussolini are one thing. They can be explained by an interest in history. But when Pearson finds a stash of St. George’s Cross shirts in his father’s wardrobe, the mystery doubles. Now it’s not only who killed his father but, also, who was his father.
Kingdom Come is divided into three parts. The first is a potboiler welded to Kafka’s The Castle. Pearson bounces from one inscrutable locale to the next, always with the dome of the Metro-Centre hanging over him like an ominous moon. He witnesses riots, lootings, and homes set aflame as the St. George’s Cross contingent grows angrier and bolder. This first section ends with a bomb, a violent catalyst that engenders a sudden change in Pearson. In Part II, a surprising shift enlivens the book as Pearson, an advertising man to the core, joins forces with the Metro-Centre. He rationalizes the move, framing it as a tactic in his continued search for his father’s killer. But, really, his motives are ambiguous. Pearson seems to genuinely savor his skill at manipulating the consumer hoi polloi. The Metro-Centre’s beloved spokesperson, a second rate actor named David Cruise—who Pearson once employed on the commercial that effectively ended his career in London—is recast by Pearson. Instead of the smiling game show host that had been representing the mall, Pearson creates out of Cruise a brooding antihero. He puts him in bizarre, aggressive advertisements. One features “a grainy close-up of David Cruise, no longer the primped and rouged anchorman of afternoon television, but the fugitive and haunted hero of a noir film. He sat at the wheel of his car, staring at the open road and whatever nemesis lay in wait for him.” Another ad, a billboard that covers an entire side of an office building, features Cruise “in a nightmare replay of a Strindberg drama, threatening and confused as he stared across a display floor of showroom kitchens, a husband who had woken into the innermost circle of hell.” What is especially strange for us, as readers, about these ads is not how unlikely they sound. It’s that, upon a moment’s thought, we can think of real-life examples of major ad campaigns that are much like these—campaigns that use alienation, bewilderment, and existential dread as selling tools. Pearson’s new image for the mall goes down a treat, and the town’s nationalistic elements coalesce into a deeper, quasi-military level of organization. Pearson encourages this. Another of his schemes is the addition of promotional badges from local retailers, which the locals take to stitching on to their St. George’s Cross shirts, giving their “wearers the look of Grand Prix drivers.” Pearson refers to the suburbs, the motorway towns, as a vast “social laboratory,” and that’s just how he treats Brooklands. What we experience in this portion of the novel is that most odious potential modern villain, the self-aggrandizing market researcher, freed from the conference rooms of focus groups and granted an entire suburban town as his canvas. Pearson is attempting to put into practice the slogan “Mad is bad. Bad is good.” which he’d proposed for the failed car campaign that led to his firing back in London. The results of this motto as applied to the real world are, unsurprisingly, horrific. Part III of Kingdom Come functions as a surreal, extended climax. An army of St. George’s Crossers, led by the mall’s PR man, occupies the Metro-Centre. They barricade themselves inside and are besieged by the police. The standoff stretches over two months, and society inside the mall starts to devolve into a primitive state: A modern animist culture in which souls are attributed to consumer goods. Spooky shrines are erected to electronic appliances. As one character puts it, “Consumerism is built on regression.” Ballard seems to have believed that the desires of a consumer hive mind, if allowed to run rampant when locked inside a consumer paradise, would degenerate into madness, baseness, and savagery. (There are shades in this section of Ballard’s 1975 classic High Rise.) When a main character succumbs to a slow death from an assassin’s bullet, the tribespeople of the Metro-Centre arrange his corpse, like an offering, at the feet of the animatronic bears that serve as mall mascots. They pray to them, intoning, like a hymn, the children’s song “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.”
Kingdom Come’s language is very occasionally purple (“The human race sleepwalked to oblivion, thinking only about the corporate logos on its shroud”). But, since the book is written in the first person from the viewpoint of Richard Pearson, it’s easy to chalk these lapses up to Ballard being bravely faithful to the way his characteristically self-satisfied ad man would actually think. Likewise, the novel’s dialogue can too often sound like Ballard talking to Ballard. I’m dubious that an average engineer would say to a new acquaintance, re: the mall: “It’s an incubator. People go in there and they wake up, they see their lives are empty. So they look for a new dream… ” But it seems that the biggest groaners (“Masochism is the new black”) are more than made up for by better-stated, less assuming counterparts (“People need a little bit of abuse in their lives.”) There’s also this: Even when the characters speak to each other in Ballardese, the language is lucid, strange, and risky because it is Ballardese. So, really, what’s the harm?
Kingdom Come is not J.G. Ballard’s definitive statement. It doesn’t even come close to the task of summing up his varied and luminous career. No capstone here. It just happened to be his final book novel. But it is, in a way that was uniquely his, angry and elegant and timely.