suburban dystopia

“Kingdom Come” at the Mall: J.G. Ballard’s Prophetic Last Novel

A sort of food-court dystopia takes hold in and around a super-mall on the outer edges of metropolitan London in J.G. Ballard’s incisive last novel, published in 2006, three years before his death. The English author was a foremost chronicler of speculative societal fracturing in works such as Concrete Island, High Rise and Crash. The kind of high concept dissolution of those books are also featured here in the story of Richard Pearson, a recently let-go advertising man who goes to investigate how his estranged father came to be one of victims of mass shooting in the main atrium of the Metro-Centre, a sprawling modern shopping center buffeted by hotels, offices and several sports stadiums that are regularly packed with enthusiastic and sometimes volatile fans.

Pearson gives up his trendy flat in Central London to immerse himself in the strange, semi-fictionalized world of the “motorway towns” in the vicinity of Heathrow Airport. Despite this area being only 15-20 miles from Trafalgar Square, it is a place apart in Ballard’s vision. A terse, maze-like psychogeography takes hold. The Metro-Centre presents itself as an optimistic unifying force, in contrast to the “alienating” effect of modernism found in “heritage London.” Underneath its enormous central dome, Pearson is met by the mall’s PR man: “he was smiling, friendly and crushingly earnest, with the pale skin and overly clear eyes of a cult recruiter.” He assures Pearson that the denizens of Brooklands (the town is fictitious but named after the former racing circuit nearby and seen below) have “pulled together” after the tragedy and that retail business there suffered only a minor setback.

Pearson moves into the condo of a dead father he barely knew and soon becomes all too aware of a regressive “pocket revolution” in his midst. Organized groups of sporting clubs, most wearing shirts emblazoned with England’s St. James’ insignia, have rallies that quickly turn into racial attacks on Asian and Eastern European immigrants. Of course, these dark energies are quick to be harnessed. Shades of Brexit and Trumpism rise to the surface, though the book predates them by a decade. Ballard could be masterful at trenchant observation as when describing the shadowy figures behind this grim initiative. They are trafficking in “a violence of the mind, where aggression and cruelty were part of a radical code that denied good and evil in favor of an embraced pathology.”  Nowadays, that sounds all too familiar.

A popular and ubiquitous TV host of the complex’ in-house cable channel, with the blithe name of David Cruise, is put up as the nominal, would-be head of state. As a man who is “authentic in his insincerity” he seems just the ticket. Pearson even takes a new stab at his old occupation, becoming his ad man, even reusing a pitch (“Mad is Bad, Bad is Good”) that kinda got him fired in his old job. But he takes the role to infiltrate the movement and find out who’s behind the killings—a case that has become clouded in deception—while also becoming curious as to what the true end game of his chosen profession might be. After all, he spent a career cultivating a suburban mindset where people identify themselves through their purchases. But this domain of “Consumerism Uber Alles” is soon embroiled in a proxy war as the militias who profess to protect the shoppers are besieged by government forces who have had enough of this Banana Republic banana republic.

Kingdom Come is not a perfect book. It feels padded at time with catchphrases and dialogue that seem more like panel discussions, while character motivations often seem confused. But as a speculative look into a world where mob violence is described as “local pride” and an undervalued population ready to shade into madness, Ballard’s book is vivid and alarming. In a way we are all ensnared in this world. It’s esp. true here in America, where 70% of the economy is tied up in consumer spending and where there were two mass shootings in shopping areas the day I started this post. 

It may be easy to think of Kingdom Come as an overwrought fever dream, and it does slip into that at times. But Ballard was uncanny in a lot of his prognostications (High Rise mirrored the current folly of the practically unlivable supertalls on New York’s “Billionaire’s Row”) and I’ll never look at a shopping mall in quite the same way ever again.