Friday, July 10, 2009

[review] Kingdom Come, J. G. Ballard

JG Ballard is probably best known for Empire of the Sun, which was put to the screen by Steven Spielberg. Most of Ballard's books have to do with ambivalent relationships with ambivalent women, but his last few novels focused on suburban dystopia. Kingdom Come is one of these, and its black comedy had me laughing out loud. From reviews of Ballard's work, general opinion is that this is the best of these newer stories.

Plot. Richard Pearson's father is one of the fatalities in a gunman's rampage at a huge shopping mall in the suburb of Brooklands, a town off the M25. Richard, a recently fired advertising executive, comes to Brooklands for closure and instead finds a mystery.

The gunman, a mental patient, is released due to lack of evidence -- a few witnesses placed him elsewhere in the mall during the shooting. As Richard speaks with the police, a doctor who had treated his father, the gunman's psychiatrist and his father's solicitor, a picture begins to emerge about the role of the mall in the lives of suburbanites. There is either hatred of this shrine to consumerism, or love of it. The mall, a vast, self-contained mini-city with three hotels and its own TV channel, sponsors weekly sporting events that result in drunken rampages against the immigrant residents of Brooklands. Ballard twists this into sublimated hatred of those who are using a different economic channel than the Metro-Centre mall.

Richard, in search of his father's killer as well as trying to get a grasp on a man he barely knew, is drawn into the war between mall-haters and mall-lovers. The mall becomes an ideology unto itself, and only chaos can erupt.

Review. This is satire with a pit bull's bite. It's completely over the top, hauling in heavy-handed comparisons to the development of Nazi Germany. But at the same time one senses in the details a little too much underlying reality, a genuine potential for suburbia to behave in this way. The funniest scene, to me, was the trio of giant animated teddy bears, the anchor point of the mall. They, too, were shot by the gunman, and the mall patrons leave shoals of flowers, jars of honey and get well cards at their feet. (You just know this would happen in real life, and almost certainly has.)

Ballard's writing is a bit choppy. There might be a jump of days or a few weeks between chapters, with an unrealistic lack of continuity in Richard's knowledge. The loyalties of various minor characters are not often clear. Also, at one point, the mall's public relations manager, Tom Carradine, is referred to as 'David Carradine' a few times -- an editor's oversight that will hopefully be corrected in future editions. One senses from this that Ballard wrote it in rushes of inspiration. But overall, a good and memorable book I want to hang onto next time I need a good laugh at suburbia.

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