Kingdom Come, by JG Ballard

A fist in the face of retail heaven
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The Independent Culture

If anger is the rocket-fuel of satire, then JG Ballard is a one-man danger zone. "If you can smell the motorway, you're in the real England," pronounces a character in his raging new thought-experiment, Kingdom Come.

The motorway in question is the M25, whose satellite towns make up a St George-flag-toting, casually racist Albion where to be a consumer is to be a citizen; where ownership of a loyalty card represents membership of humanity itself; and where spiritual experience takes the form of retail epiphany. As one typically lucid, socially-fascinated character observes of his fellow-citizens: "We're all children today. Like it or not, only consumerism can hold a modern society together... Societies are happier when people spend, not save."

But, like spoiled children, the semi-lobotomised consumers of Ballard country are easily bored. "They needed to stamp and shout and wave their banners," says his central protagonist, Richard Pearson. "To believe passionately in something or failing that, nothing."

We are once again in the rich psychic territory of Cocaine Nights, SuperCannes and Millennium People - a 21st-century landscape peopled by bored primates whose success and wealth stir up a blood-lust that demands urgent and elaborate quenching.

Richard Pearson's father has been shot dead in a giant shopping mall called the Metro Centre (think Bluewater on magic mushrooms) by a lone gunman. Duncan Christie, a mental patient on day-release, appears to be the culprit. But mysteriously, three witnesses, all "pillars of society", provide him with an alibi. Richard questions them in turn, and becomes convinced that they have something to hide - as do the oddly apathetic police.

Propelled by his need to track down his father's true killer, Richard, a former ad-man, finds himself sucked into a love-hate dance with the possibilities of consumer madness, and into the muzaked vortex of the Metro Centre itself. Reporting like an embedded correspondent from beyond enemy lines, from "the St Peter's Square of the retail world", Ballard is in his element describing the sporting-event frenzy and racist thuggery which the crypto-fascism of the bar-code both fuels and celebrates.

There may be no such thing as society in the queasy mall dystopia of Kingdom Come - but there's psychopathology in bucketloads. And therefore plenty of scope for the kind of energetic, ideologically muddled social engineering with which Ballard's maverick cast - in this case a nexus of professionals fired up by a feudalist-conservative longing for the "old ways"- can experiment.

But disconcertingly (and often, it must be said, confusingly), none of them, including Richard's own murdered father, is quite what they seem. And some, like Richard himself, whose advertising career peaked with the slogan "Bad is good", are dangerously ready to play any new mind-game that comes their way.

Still playing detective, Richard appoints himself "media adviser" to the Metro Centre's in-house Kilroy, David Cruise. But he cannot resist the temptation to use his creative talents to add noir spice to the bubbling social cauldron of the mall, and boost its plateau-ing appeal by launching a "new politics". "No slogans, no messages," he enthuses to the TV host. "No manifestos, no commitments. No easy answers... you steer them by sensing their mood. Think of a herd of wildebeest on the African plain."

As the ad-man's anxiety dream turns to waking nightmare, the public unrest tips into semi-orchestrated turmoil and the herd follows its easily-swung emotions, littering the landscape with St George flags and shrines to the randomly slain. It culminates in an exhilarating pyrotechnic display in which the novelist torches and burns his creation with all the glee glee of a committed arsonist, and revels in the flames.

After reading such a scathing attack on consumer society, one hesitates to recommend the purchase of this important, challenging, justly furious novel - for fear of fuelling the machine further. So consider it not as an act of shopping, but as a fist in retail's face.

Liz Jensen's latest novel is 'My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time' (Bloomsbury)