Kingdom Come: A Novel
- J.G. Ballard
- W. W. Norton
- 310 pp.
- Reviewed by Ananya Bhattacharyya
- April 20, 2012
In this dystopian nightmare set in a British shopping mall, rampant consumerism has made fascists out of everyone.
Reviewed by Ananya Bhattacharyya
Contemporary Britain is a dystopian nightmare in Ballard’s Kingdom Come. Consumerism has made fascists out of everyone, and immigrants are the targets. The source of all evil is a shopping mall outside Heathrow Airport. Like the swastika on another occasion, the cross of St George ubiquitously reigns over the racism and the sports riots, while the police monitor the situation passively.
Richard Pearson, a laid off advertising executive, finds himself in this bedlam after his father is gunned down at the Metro-Centre mall. Even though he didn’t know his father at all when he was alive, he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding his shooting. Can the gunman really be the mental patient Duncan Christie? But Christie is released when three prominent witnesses turn up and say that he was at a different location within the mall when the shooting took place. Pearson senses something’s fishy: All three witnesses knew Christie personally. He decides to investigate, but he is quickly sucked into the vortex of the insanity.
Kingdom Come has numerous references to Nazi Germany, making the case that just as Hitler and the Nazi Party whipped up communal hatred against Jews, communists, homosexuals and others in Germany in the ’30s, consumerism has somehow become similarly malevolent and authoritative. The first-person narrator, Pearson, states: “I accepted that a new kind of hate had emerged, silent and disciplined, a racism tempered by loyalty cards and PIN numbers. Shopping was now the model for all human behavior, drained of emotion and anger. The decision by the estate-dwellers to reject the imam was an exercise of consumer choice.”
However, the link between consumerism and fascism isn’t quite cemented by Ballard. A huge mental shift must take place to make people who are addicted to loyalty cards and PIN numbers turn around and burn down Asian grocery stores. While Ballard offers us one larger-than-life personality, David Cruise, the local cable guy whom people are drawn to, and who encourages their consumerism and stokes their hatred for immigrants, his presence is “soft and ingratiating,” and ultimately he is no Hitler.
Absent is what Coleridge specified: In order for the reader to willingly suspend disbelief and go along with a story that falls outside the tradition of realism, a writer has to create the “semblance of truth.” But instead of using little details to create this alternative truth, Ballard, a novelist of ideas, offers heavy concepts: “At the sales counter, the human race’s greatest confrontation with existence, there were no yesterdays, no history to be relived, only an intense transactional present.”
In the end, I’m left with one striking image. At the beginning of the novel, we encounter three giant teddy bears at the center of Metro-Centre mall, in front of which a shrine has been erected. During the shooting at the mall, two people died instantly and 15 people were injured. But the grief people feel are for the slightly defaced bears. It’s for these symbols of rampant consumerism that customers have sent hundreds of letters and get-well cards, flowers and jars of honey. I would have loved to have glimpsed into what went on inside the heads of people who could collectively do something so strange.
Ananya Bhattacharyya, a writer-editor based in the Washington, D.C. area, has an M.F.A. in creative writing (fiction) from George Mason University and an M.A. in English literature from University of Mumbai. Her short stories have appeared in So to Speak, Phoebe and Washington Square Review, and she is working on her first novel.