Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard – review

Kingdom Come is the last novel published by the late J.G. Ballard. I get the impression the guy is huge in Europe, but he doesn’t get much press at all around here, and his books were always difficult to find. Still, I have his collected stories sitting on my shelf, and I was pushed to read Crash after seeing Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the same name. while I wasn’t overly familiar with Ballard, I knew enough to give this book a shot when I saw it sitting in the “new” section at the library.

The writing itself is good. You want to keep reading when you start, which is always a good thing. The story is engaging. The characters are interesting. However, there’s something that kept getting in my way of really enjoying the book. I know it was originally published in 2006 in England, and I have no idea when Ballard started writing it. Even in 2006, though, the death of the mall has been readily apparent in the United States. Now they don’t even build big in-door malls, or at least I never hear  of them being built. Instead, there are these bizarre shopping “villages”  that fore you to traipse about in all sorts of weather to get from Bath and Body Works to Macy’s, constantly going from ear numbing winter cold to blistering in-door heat, or scorching summer sun to crushing air conditioning in the summer. even while walking around these relatively new constructions of consumerism, I’ve seen a growing number of stores going dark, then remaining dark (and these stores are usually book stores, unfortunately. Electronic stores seem the next to go).  The shift to the digital market place has been in gear for years, since well before 2006 (I know, I was buying stuff off Ebay in the mid-late 90s when it was strange and new).

Now, the mall is clearly  a literary device, and it probably shouldn’t have pulled me out of the story as much as it did.  It was the embodiment of consumerism,  its greatest cathedral, and it was there to give this intangible idea a physical body. This tangibility would have been a bit more difficult to achieve with a website. However, the face of consumerism now is a website, but not just one website, but a plethora of website. Everything from Amazon to Overstock, Ebay to MyHabit and the bundles of smaller websites and specialized websites and particular store websites make up our shopping experience now. The only thing that I consistently go to a store for now is for the groceries, but it is difficult to see Ballard’s idea of people coming together to blindly worship their consumer gods in the produce aisle.

still, the idea that people are substituting buying their Birkenstock for spiritual fulfillment can hold, and it is perhaps the next step beyond, it’s consumerism risen from the grave as Richard Pearson, the protagonist of the novel, gravely foretells at the end of the novel.  So, maybe Ballard is really writing a history, like the boring flipside to the Wall St. 1980s. While Michael Douglas was the poster boy for the rampant Rich Get Richer and Damn The Bodies I Step Over On The Way Up (yeah, that ended up much longer and awkward than I anticipated when I started), Ballard’s Metro-Centre is the posterboy for suburbia.  It’s where everyone goes when they want to leave their cordoned off sleeping quarters to venture back towards the city, but in an entirely safe and sanitized way, so they can spend some money and feel a bit better about themselves. But that’s so 90s and 80s.

So, do I think Ballard was on to something about the fetishization of consuming?  Honestly, no, not really. For one, as I said, the mall has kind of went by the way side, and I think the cultishness of everything purchasable isn’t as tangible as the novel makes takes it, nor do I think it’s an overly likely outcome. Also, I think we’ve already seen a backlash against it with younger people. In the United States, automakers have had a growing fear that the teens, 20 and 30 somethings will increasingly turn away from owning cars (or at least big expensive ones with high profit margins) and turn ever more towards mass transit, because they value their internet more than their vehicle. We see it in changing housing decisions, proliferation of electric vehicles and support for alternative fuels and energy sources, in the growth of the knitting world, and community gardens. In short, young people aren’t as interested – as a group – in buying as much crap as their parents and grandparents (except me, I love to shop).

still, it’s a good read, and despite how implausible I find it in retrospect, it still achieves that suspension of disbelief where it seems entirely possible that all of the neighbors will begin going to the mall, and wandering through Nordsstrom’s seeking epiphany at the perfume counter. And there is a certain degree of what Ballard is saying that you can see in society, that still makes you go, “Maybe…” From people filing lawsuits over not being able to buy their ebooks cheap enough to the marauding of stores going out of business, and willing to fork over gobs of cash on “deals” that discounted less than a store’s normal discounts, people love to shop, and they love the idea of paying less than they think they should. And malls really are the last of the great enclosed spaces that seek to awe the eye. Sports stadiums can be massive and in-door, but they always lack the gaudy exhibitionism of the shopping mall. If there was anything around today that could be compared to a cathedral it is the shopping mall. Unfortunately, they are much like the real cathedrals – empty, visited more for curiosity and a misguided sentimentality than out of innate compulsion or necessity.

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