Kingdom Come by J G Ballard

Shopping and killing
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Ballard's latest novel introduces us without preamble to Richard Pearson, a bored and recently unemployed advertising executive heading off-map in his souped-up classic car towards the quiet Surrey town of Brooklands . There, he hopes to settle the estate of his father, a former pilot killed in a "bizarre shooting incident" at a Bluewateresque mall called the Metro-Centre. Pearson, no mean cynic, regards Brooklands and its neighbours - "the perimeter towns dozing against the protective shoulder of the M25" - as the apotheosis of the ad-man's work. "This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity," he remarks approvingly. "The town was an end state of consumerism... At least these Thames Valley natives with their airport culture would never start a war."

This being Ballard, though, something far more sinister than Supermarket Sweep is going on in Brooklands. Well-drilled squads of "sports fans", wearing the Cross of St George like insignia, torch Asian newsagents and fight running battles with gangs of Kosovan youths. The Horst Wessel song and the more excitable bits of Verdi play as Muzak in the shopping mall. Pearson discovers his father's collection of books about Goering, Mussolini, Mosley and the Third Reich, along with a stack of St George's shirts; in the meantime, his father's killer is released without trial. He meets Dr Tony Maxted, a self-involved psychiatrist, who prattles meaningfully about the human need for violence; Dr Julia Goodwin, a beautiful but exhausted doctor,who warns him about the "local militias", and David Cruise, the perpetual permatanned star of the Metro-Centre's own cable channel, whose show receives "higher ratings than BBC2".

Before long, and with blithe implausibility, Pearson has cast himself as the town's social and political éminence grise, a multimedia sculptor of the Brooklands psyche. He becomes the Goebbels to Cruise's Führer, eagerly scripting a leisurewear Fascism to wake the dreaming suburbs "into a more passionate world": perpetual sports fixtures enlivened by racism, protection rackets and a murky state-run ad campaign, featuring images of terror, degradation and men laughing in abattoirs.

The rising tide of aggression causes the Metro-Centre itself to be threatened. This is a place that has made away with day, night and time in favour of year-round purchasing power, that has retired God in favour of three gigantic animatronic bears, and that, during the course of a fairly laconic siege by the forces of law and order, turns on its disciples in fittingly apocalyptic fashion.

Kingdom Come is a robust tour d'horizon of the current Ballardian obsessions, which fact alone is enough to set it above a great deal of contemporary fiction. But its details would be far more gripping had the plot, the theme, the characters and much of the dialogue been substantially distinct from those in Ballard's past three books. The sage of Shepperton has always been a writer of preoccupations and permutations, far more interested in environments than in people and working perpetually in the weird blank light of obsession. With Cocaine Nights, though, he instituted a sequence of four books - so far, anyway - that have each played variations on the theme of consumer-satiety-relieved-by-violence without substantially refining it. Whole slabs of dialogue shuffle practically verbatim between these novels. Stock Ballard characters - megalomaniacal headshrinkers, disintegrating stars of the screen, zealous but fragile lady doctors - assemble dutifully to speak their lines, which are delivered in an oblique, rather dated idiom with scant regard for differentiation of speaker. The texture of the prose is aphoristic, clotted, grimly repetitive; it can be poetic in its oblique lucidity, but it can equally often appear maladroit, tin-eared, slapdash, silly or boring.

Kingdom Come, it should be stressed, offers few departures from this pattern. Yet, as the only contender in his very specialised field, in which most of the conventional necessities of narrative prose become little more than framing devices for the play of an almighty visual imagination, Ballard retains the terrifying, satirical self-possessedness that makes him never less than worth reading. Many more of these programmatic walkthroughs for apocalypse, though, and the uneasy suspicion may arise that he is running out of world to imagine.