Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard – review

May 3, 2012

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.

Body Art – story review

January 30, 2010

The second story in A.S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is Body Art. Body Art follows the evolution of  a relationship between an emotionally distant doctor and a young woman literally and figuratively scarred by a previous abortion. She is a young artist who the doctor discovers sleeping in a homemade cave in a storage room. He gives her a place to stay, for reasons unexplained she crawls into bed with him every night for the week that she stays with him, and winds up pregnant. He wants the kid, she doesn’t, he convinces her (forces her?) to keep it. She has the kid, ends up loving it for reasons she can not articulate and we are left with an image of them as a possible inexplicable family.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story. Part of me wants to find some sort of religious correlation. Daisy, while not virginal, certainly seems to play the role of wounded innocent carrying a child she didn’t ask for. Meanwhile, the doctor, is named Damian and is less than likable throughout much of the story. He assumes a clearly domineering role towards Daisy, essentially demands she bear the child, and then sees through the birthing process himself. The other central character is a woman named Marth who Damian works with to attempt to catalogue a collection of art and medical curiosities the hospitol’s founder has left behind. Until knocking Daisy up, Damian had wanted to pursue Martha but the unexpected pregnancy forced the three of them into a bizarre “family” dynamic with Damian and Martha assuming the stereotypical parent roles to Daisy – which also touches upon a disturbing incestual dynamic. In the middle of the story, between Damian having knocking Daisy up and them discovering that she was knocked up, there was an art show where Daisy had “borrowed” (or stole, depending on point of view) materials from the medical curiosities to construct a massive collage/statue of Kali.

There’s also  a clear man/woman thing going on. Daisy is continually hurt by men. Her father ditches her. her boyfriend knocks her up and ditches her. The baby, iirc, was a boy when it was aborted and the abortion almost killed her partially because of complications and partially (insinuated) from a possibly inept male physician. Damian, aside from being named after the devil, knocks her up, throws her out of her “cave,” tears down her statue of Kali made from appropriated materials from the hospitol while threatening police action, and forces her to bear the child they conceived.

Meanwhile, Daisy continually communicates along the lines of feelings. If anything she is too connected to the world around her, allowing it to emotionally injure her too readily while continually trying to foster some sort of positive reactions all around her through use of her art. Martha becomes an almost stereotypical mother figure, with all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Through the first two stories there seems to be a thread being formed of women carrying the injuries of their youth throughout their lives – that whatever horrors afflicted them then in some way transforms them into the adults they become, dictating the path of their lives, the choices they make, the methods with which they come to deal with the world. Now this isn’t something that should be revolutionary. It is something that can be equally applied to fairly much everyone that their pasts dictate their futures, no necessarily in an economic sense (though, often, I think it does) but in an intangible “who you are” sense. but maybe something can be said in how all of the women are crippled in some form and that none of them appear to have had childhoods that didn’t involve some sort of trauma that radically affected their lives. Then it should be noted that the most well adjusted woman, so far, has been Martha from Body Art and that she easily assumes a “motherly” role while Daisy and Damian seem entirely unsure and uncomfortable of their roles. Is Byatt saying something about motherhood being a natural mask for women to wear? Or is she saying something more akin to a “healthy” woman somehow requires a motherly aspect not only in their youth but an ability to assume such a role in adulthood?