The Congestion Zone of the Soul
By Nicholas Royle.
J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come, Harper Perennial, 2007 (pb)
When his father is killed by a sniper’s bullet in a shopping mall close to the M25, unemployed advertising executive Richard Pearson turns detective in a bid to uncover the truth behind the shooting.
Ballard has always felt compelled to go over the same ground more than once, working not on individual novels so much as groupings of novels. There were the environmental disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World), the urban anxiety novels (Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise), the autobiographical novels (Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women), the Mediterranean mystery novels (Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes). But it’s a sign of how very close Kingdom Come is to Millennium People that for this review I have been able to use exactly the same opening sentence as I used for my review of Millennium People (published in Interzone magazine), with a handful of necessary substitutions. My opening sentence on Millennium People read as follows: “When his ex-wife is killed by a terrorist bomb on a luggage carousel at Heathrow Aiport, psychologist David Markham turns detective in a bid to uncover the truth behind the explosion.” For ‘ex-wife’ I have substituted ‘father’, ‘terrorist bomb’ becomes ‘sniper’s bullet’, ‘on a luggage carousel’ gives way to ‘in a shopping mall’, ‘at Heathrow Airport’ hands over to ‘close to the M25’. For ‘psychologist David Markham’ read ‘unemployed advertising executive Richard Pearson’, and finally, ‘explosion’ is downsized to ‘shooting’. The Millennium People review went on: ‘His quest leads him to become involved in the unlikeliest revolution…’ And this review could very easily continue with the exactly the same line.
In the frame for old man Pearson’s murder is mental patient Duncan Christie, a campaigner against the increasing power wielded over people’s lives by the Metro-Centre shopping mall. Revolving around Christie and Pearson, and the Metro-Centre, drawing energy in various ways from the idea of consumerism as a new form of fascism, is a familiar orrery of characters: psychiatrist Dr Tony Maxted; the attractive but always tired and tousled Dr Julia Goodwin; headmaster William Sangster; Tom Carradine, PR man for the shopping mall; lawyer Geoffrey Fairfax; and David Cruise, former actor turned TV anchor for the Metro-Centre’s own cable TV channel. That they are all ciphers is not the point. The point is the ideas, the careful creation of a world – a believable world, up to a point – in which people live in thrall to a shopping mall and its charismatic cable TV host. In which ordinary men and women in St George’s shirts attack East Europeans and Asian businesses and take part in orchestrated riots.
The buildings and infrastructure are as important as, if not more important than, the cast of characters. The settings – the M25 and its miniature familiar, the Brooklands race track; the glowing dome of the Metro-Centre itself; Sangster’s school; Julia Greenwood’s hospital – are imprinted on the mind as much by constant repetition of their appearance and qualities as by the author’s use of active verbs when referring to them: “The Metro-Centre withdrew behind me…”, “Giant floes of black concrete emerged from the darkness”. Inanimate objects are described in ways that can make them seem more alive than the characters observing them: “Eddies of scum circled aimlessly, exhausted by the attempt…”
Ballard’s satire is grimly funny. It makes you align your facial muscles in something closer to a grimace than a smile. In one of two jibes at Auntie, we are told that the Metro-Centre’s cable channel has ratings higher than those for BBC2. (Ballard’s most recent exposure on terrestrial TV was as the subject of ITV’s South Bank Show.)
For fans of Ballard, Kingdom Come is a rich source of pleasure from page one. His distinctive prose immediately sets up expectations of a particular kind of content. Ballard has gone through the phase of having the adjective that describes his own work applied to that of other writers, so that now it is used by reviewers tackling new work by Ballard himself. By holding back most of his work from publication during his lifetime, Kafka managed never to be saddled with the adjective Kafkaesque while he was alive. Ballard’s work, however, is increasingly described as Ballardian.
If some of the characters occasionally seem to slip rather too easily into an assumption of the views of the author, or at very least the narrator, this is only Ballard being Ballardian. “Anywhere near the M25 is dangerous,” says Dr Julia Goodwin, who also observes that “seatbelts are sexual restraints”, making her sound like a character adrift from another novel. Inner London, according to Richard Pearson, is “a congestion zone of the soul”.
It can be difficult following the various allegiances of the cast and working out who really believes what they spout. Is Richard Pearson attracted by the trappings of fascism, as he understands his father to have been? Did Geoffrey Fairfax plant the bomb in Richard’s car or was he trying to defuse it when it went off? The ideas – Ballard’s ideas – float in the air like memes, while characters become aware of them as if by morphic responance. Conspiracies take shape as swiftly as a cloud of smoke forms above the Metro-Centre.
I can think of no other author whose new work I anticipate with quite the same degree of excitement.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Nicholas Royle is the author of five novels, among them The Director’s Cut and Antwerp. His latest book is a short story collection, Mortality (Serpent’s Tail).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 28th, 2007.