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Keywords: Fiction

Title: Kingdom Come

Author: JG Ballard

Publisher: Harper Perennial

ISBN: 0007232470

 

Over many years JG Ballard has developed a singularly distinctive voice in the world of English letters. He had achieved the rank of favoured outsider - his work is treated seriously, he is regularly reviewed and discussed by the critics. While he doesn't get the respect according to authors of 'serious' or 'literary' fiction, Ballard is a lot more respectable than he used to be. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this respectability is, possibly, exacted at a cost.

'Kingdom Come', Ballard's latest novel, is in similar vein to 'Millennium People', 'Super Cannes' and 'Cocaine Nights'. Gone are the environmental dystopias of the earlier Ballard, or the fictionalised autobiographies of 'Empire of The Sun' and 'The Kindness Of Women'. No longer looking to cracked images of the future or distorted versions of the past, Ballard directs his gaze at disturbing aspects of the contemporary world.

In the case of 'Kingdom Come' we are in Ballard's own backyard - the suburban home counties. This is home to Ballard in more than the physical sense. It's a landscape that he had made his own is previous novels and short stories, including, notably 'The Unlimited Dream Company' which was set in his home town of Shepperton. It is a comfortable and outwardly conformist world that Ballard peoples with obsessive characters, enigmatic protagonists and odd goings on. It's a world of middle class ennui, gin and tonics and an underlying violence and sexuality that can dangerously explode given the right combination of incendiary circumstances.

Richard Pearson, the central protagonist of the novel, returns to a sleepy commuter town near the M25 for the funeral of his father, who was gunned down during a killing spree in the local shopping centre. Pearson quickly discovers that there is something ominous going on, and that the local worthies he meets seem to be shielding the alleged gunman. The deeper he digs the more he uncovers about the shopping mall, the sleepy commuter town and a strangely suburban and English fascism that is spreading throughout the home counties.

Ballard tunes in to contemporary narratives of suppressed violence, racial tension and anti-consumerism. Middle-class angst about the spread of shopping malls and supermarkets spills over into violence and a barely concealed horror of the mob (who fall prey to the allure of empty consumerism and a cult of celebrity). The killing spree at the mall turns out not to be a case of a lone nut letting loose a volley of bullets in a crowded concourse.

While there are flashes of Ballardian brilliance, there is no denying that this is one of his weakest novels. The story is essentially very silly, and certainly does nothing to enhance his reputation as a visionary shining a light on the dark heart of contemporary society. 'Kingdom Come' does not compare at all well to his earlier works in this series, particularly 'Super Cannes'. The writing feels lazy, the ideas lack originality and insight.

As Ballard's reputation has risen, so too have the number of critics who look to his work for a critique of where we are going. Still worse there are those who seek to discern hidden themes and patterns in the real world, who look to Ballard to find the pulse of what's going on in the world around us. And it feels as though he has responded by attempting to make his work more obviously 'relevant'. If this is so it's a mistake, for in seeking to make explicitly political or critical points, he is producing work that is shallow and uninventive. Ballard's best work provides an oblique view of the world that is informed by his own obsessive visions and neuroses. That this can sometimes illuminate aspects of the world is almost incidental - it is certainly not the point of his work.

Perhaps he's simply trying to hard to be the JG Ballard that the critics are looking for. Maybe it's time to become the JG Ballard that his fans adore instead.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2007. Site contents © London Book Review 2007. Published November 08 2007