Book Review – Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard
Ballard has been on a long decline for decades now. Since the heady days of his seminal The Atrocity Exhibition, as well as arguably his best novels in High Rise and The Unlimited Dream Company, Ballard’s novels have been deteriorating almost imperceptibly. Perhaps this is somewhat unfair, but it’s how I feel. J. G. Ballard is one of the most important fantasists of the twentieth century, but his last important novel was Empire of the Sun, and that was published more than twenty years ago. The novels after Empire are of middling quality (The Day of Creation, Rushing to Paradise and The Kindness of Women, as well as the excellent novella Running Wild). But his work since then has been poor.
Ballard’s last four novels are often thought of as a thematic quartet, in that they all address the psychopathology of modern life. They are Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come. I can’t comment on the Millennium People, because I haven’t read it, but the other three are middling at best. Unfortunately, Ballard has made the mistake of many a successful writer before him: he has continued writing well into his seventies, even though he has long finished saying everything he ever wanted to say in fiction. And thus his books are repetitive and ‘samey,’ almost to the point of self-parody. But nobody is laughing in Kingdom Come.
It’s not that bad a book, really. If someone else had written it, it would be dismissed as a not-too-successful attempt to imagine the suburban upheavals of the future. It’s only that it has the name ‘J. G. Ballard’ on it that anyone has paid attention to what is basically a lightweight thriller. It’s about a grassroots, sports-loving, racist, St George shirt-wearing, consumerist revolution in the Heathrow Airport area of England. The protagonist, a forty-something ad man named Richard Pearson, comes into this area to investigate the murder of his elderly father at the Metro-Centre, a colossal shopping centre that inhabits the literal and emotional centre of this novel.
Characters were never exactly Ballard’s strength (consider the stereotypical and outdated characters in otherwise excellent novels like The Drowned World and The Crystal World), but now all his characters are cut from the same cloth as the book before, and the book before that. I can’t be bothered remembering the names of the key characters in Kingdom Come, as they aren’t especially memorable. We have: the strong but nervous lady doctor; the friendly and yet threatening psychologist; the enigmatic and authoritative shopping centre manager; the unstable and cryptic criminal mind; and the affable and vacuous television personality. And the plot, for the first half of the novel, basically consists of Pearson being shunted from one major character to another for an extended conversation, for no apparent reason other than that Ballard wanted these characters to speak in his novel. The plot is thin, but it does improve a little in the second half.
Unfortunately, Ballard has covered this material before. Kingdom Come main event, which consists of a hostage situation in the Metro Centre, echoes Ballard’s earlier Concrete Island and High Rise. The novel’s thesis is new, I suppose: that consumerism will eventually lead to fascism, and in turn to madness, but it isn’t very interesting or well argued. I read an recent interview with Ballard the other day in which he said that some of his recent novels were in fact extended short stories, and this is certainly true of Kingdom Come. This would probably work well at novella length, jettisoning the entire first section, but Ballard knows what his market is, and that is for novels.
Sadly, Ballard now has terminal prostate cancer, and at seventy-eight, needless to say, the prognosis is poor. He’s had a magnificent career, one that just about any writer should be envious of (I certainly am), but it’s all over now. The James Graham Ballard I will choose to remember will be the younger man who wrote stories like “The Voices of Time” and “The Drowned Giant,” as well as the aformentioned novels. Ballard is a giant of twentieth century literature, and he will be remembered for a long, long time. But it won’t be for what will probably end up being his last novel, Kingdom Come.