J G Ballard: The comforts of madness

J G Ballard's new novel is set in a mall. The master of the urban dystopia tells Marianne Brace why consumerism is a new fascism, and why it fascinates him
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The Independent Culture

J G Ballard knows about selling. As a young man he briefly peddled children's encyclopaedias, working the psychological relationship between the middle-class hawker and the punter bent on self-improvement. "Selling is like wooing a girl," says Ballard. Ballard "believed in" The Waverley because he had read it as a boy. Whenever he was bored his mother had told him, "'Go and read The Eight Volumes.' That was her name for them," he chuckles. "It was the nearest thing to television."

Ballard's new novel, Kingdom Come (Fourth Estate, £15.99), puts his usual Cassandra-like spin on the dangers of retail therapy. In Brooklands, a Thames Valley motorway town dominated by its domed shopping mall, the most taxing moral decision is which washing machine to buy. But even the sedated want sensation. At night, the shoppers who flock to the Metro-Centre reincarnate as mobs of sports fans, parading their St George T-shirts and attacking immigrants.

"Consumerism is so weird. It's a sort of conspiracy we collude in," says Ballard, who doesn't do shopping himself. "You'd think shoppers spending their hard-earned cash would be highly critical. You know that the manufacturers are trying to have you on."

We are sitting in the author's modest semi in Shepperton, where manufacturers have failed to "have on" Ballard. Apart from the television there's no evidence of consumer unendurables here. He doesn't even own a computer. "My three children were brought up in this house and it hasn't changed at all. Nothing has been moved for 30 years," he says.

But while things remain the same chez Ballard, the world outside has reinvented itself. Now, the landscape of greater London "lacks all the classic features of what used to be urban - the town hall, church, vicarage, public library. All these are largely gone." This fascinates Ballard. "Most English writers are not interested in change but in the social novel. That demands a static backdrop. I'm intensely interested in change - probably as a matter of self-preservation. What the hell is going to happen next?"

Ballard's drowned cities, parched landscapes and concrete jungles have come to seem remarkably prophetic. Whether conjuring primeval swamps or deluxe tower blocks with regressing residents, Ballard recognises our appetite for psychic and physical disintegration and warns about what may lie ahead. If his plots sometimes creak and his characters come from stock (architects, doctors, psychiatrists), his cool prose includes almost narcotically beautiful images while bursting with unsettling ideas.

Two things have particularly fed his imagination. Shanghai - "a terrifically exhilarating place, a media city before its time" - was where Ballard was brought up. "It has been the main engine of my fiction. I've tried to change the world to be like Shanghai of the 1930s." His anatomical and physiological studies, meanwhile, provided "a vast anthology of images and metaphors".

Ballard's work slots somewhere between Joseph Conrad and William Burroughs. His early protagonists find their own internal hearts of darkness in worlds mapped by ecological disaster, or seek new frontiers among gargantuan lizards and crystallised forests. Those frontiers become psychological in more experimental works like The Atrocity Exhibition. In the 50 years he has been writing, the dream-like apocalyptic locations have ceded to man-made enclosures where characters embrace transgressive acts just to find out whether they are still alive.

Ballard has the rare distinction of appearing as an adjective ("Ballardian") in the Collins English Dictionary. Does he - as it states - deal in dystopias? Ballard cannot resist a characteristic inversion: "I've decided to recast myself as Utopian. I like this landscape of the M25 and Heathrow. I like airfreight offices and rent-a-car bureaus. I like dual carriageways. When I see a CCTV camera, I know I'm safe. What I hate," Ballard leans closer to the tape-recorder with a smile, "is what I call heritage London. This is a new hate of mine. Heritage London is not just Bloomsbury, Whitehall, the Tower of London. It's really middle-class London - Hampstead, Notting Hill, wherever you find these areas held together by a dinner-party culture."

Although admitting to being "very nostalgic" for his childhood, Ballard scorns the sentimental English love for the past. "We still believe that England is a land of gothic quadrangles and village greens, all that John Major rubbish about warm beer and spinsters cycling to evensong. Give us a break," he roars with laughter. "Living out here by the M25 I know this is the real England. This is the England that voted for Tony Blair, for cheap fights to the Seychelles and a more efficient NHS. Millions of people live out here and aren't interested in gothic quadrangles, for heaven's sake."

But how does an affection for airport hinterlands fit with his loathing of shopping malls like the Bentall Centre in nearby Kingston? "Why do I dislike the Bentall Centre so much?" Ballard muses, "because it's so... cretinous." He has watched the customers there. "They seem to be moving though a kind of commercial dream space and vague signals float through their brains." Consumerism has become part of the air we breathe. "That's why it's a potentially fertile basis for some major psychological shift."

Ballard wanted to write a quartet about what he calls "the new pathology of everyday life." Kingdom Come, like the three novels before it, is a murder mystery where the narrator investigates an unexplained death. "All four novels are about criminalising everyday life," Ballard explains. Crime energises the exclusive Spanish resort in Cocaine Nights, while criminal recreation reanimates the zombified executives in Super-Cannes's business park. Chelsea Marina's middle-class discovers the power of meaningless crime in Millennium People. For the mall-adjusted in Kingdom Come, the crime is fascism.

The narrators become implicit in the crimes, willingly seduced by a morally equivocal character. Ballard says, "The ideas offered by Dr Maxted I endorse, by and large." In Kingdom Come the psychiatrist Maxted observes that: "Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy. If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness." As an advertising man, the narrator, Richard, sees the possibilities. Determined to discover who killed his father, he helps to groom a cult leader from "the hospitality rooms of afternoon TV".

"Boredom is a fearsome prospect. There's a limit to the number of cars and microwaves you can buy. What do you do then?" asks Ballard. In the past he has predicted a future where boredom will be interrupted by violent, unpredictable acts. "Consumerism does have certain affinities with fascism," he argues. "It's a way of voting not at the ballet box but at the cash counter... The one civic activity we take part in is shopping, particularly in big malls. These are ceremonies of mass affirmation."

Kingdom Come has the familiar Ballard mix of absurdity, resonance and teasing humour. Among his favourite books he counts Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, Brave New World, Catch-22 - all self-contained worlds with their own bizarre logic. "Realism doesn't really suit the novel anymore. It simply cannot compete with the cinema, television or the TV commercial in creating a naturalistic image of the world. The novel is at its best when it creates its own world from scratch."

According to Ballard, however,"Life is filled with surrealist moments, if we only saw them... Human beings," he adds, "are the only members of the animal kingdom whose normal state of mind is pretty close to madness." As a boy, he witnessed much violence. He became distrustful of conventional reality. "I realised that what we think of as conventional reality - this quiet suburban street, for instance - is just a stage set that can be swept away." Ballard considers himself a libertarian. "I'm all for free sex, alcohol and would liberalise the drug laws if some way could be found to protect adolescents." As a writer, however, he says, "I do tend to moralise. I regret it. It turns you into a kind of salesman. I'm selling this season's hot new line: Psychopathology!" Ballard chuckles. "I do come on a bit hard sometimes through these ideas of mine. I sort of repeat myself, but I'm driving the message home."

Biography: J G Ballard

J G Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. His internment during the war inspired his most famous novel, Empire of the Sun (filmed by Steven Spielberg). Returning to England in 1946, he spent two years reading medicine at Cambridge University. Keen to write, he took various jobs from Covent Garden porter to trainee RAF pilot in Canada. He began by writing science fiction short stories and in 1962 published his first major work, The Drowned World. Many novels have followed including The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash (filmed by David Cronenberg), High Rise, Cocaine Nights and the award-winning Super-Cannes. His wife died in 1964 leaving him with three young children. He lives in Shepperton. Kingdom Come is published by Fourth Estate.

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