Angerland: Decadence and Disaffection in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come

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“Decadence demands a certain degree of innocence,” muses Dr. Maxted, a psychiatrist in J. G. Ballard’s new novel, Kingdom Come, after one of his patients opens fire with a handgun in a crowded English shopping mall. The shooting kills the father of Richard Pearson, the novel’s newly unemployed ad-man narrator. After arriving in the Brooklands suburb near Heathrow where his father lived, Pearson finds that decadence has taken a neo-fascist turn as rampant consumerism blurs into primitive innocence. The community where his father had retired celebrates the infantile and the violent as consumers attempt to escape from the boredom of their suburban lives. Pearson’s hunt for his father’s killer  — and his unraveling of the inept plot that set his father’s death in motion — leads him deeper into the madness that Dr. Maxted suggests is at the heart of an increasingly decentralized and reckless culture, for which meaning is located more in loyalty cards and football jerseys than it is in political parties or religious organizations. Pearson’s fascination with the unexplored advertising possibilities of such a world sets him on a dangerous collision course with the society elements who resent the influence of the Metro-Centre shopping mall on their community. His skills as a rebellious advertising executive are in high demand as the mall’s managers seek to expand its growth. Their domed temple to consumption is in need of a high priest, and Pearson is all too willing to experiment with the marketing of madness.

Though Kingdom Come is only now appearing in the U.S., it was originally published in Britain in 2006. Reading it after the financial crisis is an unsettling experience, not because of the unflattering picture of consumerism that it paints — standard Ballardian fare — but because the particular brand of decadence at its center seems almost too innocent. That may be a startling claim to make about a novel that presents the violent expulsion of immigrant communities as an outgrowth of the suburban ethos of “consumer choice,” but the problem isn’t with what Ballard envisions as being possible. Rather, it’s with what he identifies as the root cause. The greatest danger in a world of decadence, the novel suggests, is the mixture of an insatiable appetite for entertainment with widespread boredom. When these are combined in Brooklands, the crowd is all too willing to sell its loyalty to the first person who entertains it and validates it.

It’s difficult, while reading Kingdom Come, not to think of the financial crisis and the subsequent protests around the world, and to worry that Ballard’s focus on boredom is too narrow, however illuminating it may be. At the very least, boredom was not the sole cause of the London riots in 2011, nor was it the reason why Occupy London demonstrators set up camp on the steps of St. Paul’s a few months later (though some in David Cameron’s government may argue otherwise). Structural unemployment and diminishing opportunities played at least some role, as did the distrust of police and government officials in the wake of Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal. While it’s appropriate and necessary to condemn the violence of the riots and to question the efficacy of some of the Occupy London tactics, it would be difficult to characterize either group as suburbanites bored with their own success.

Perhaps it’s unfair to hold satire accountable for failing to anticipate the future. Ballard does not claim to be an oracle, and consumerism run amok deserves the pillorying it gets in Kingdom Come. The connections Ballard finds between boredom and neo-fascism are fascinating and disturbing, and they are presented with an experienced satirist’s deft art. But while the novel is able to imagine decadence turned violent, disaffection seems somehow outside its range, leaving its satire of consumerism poorer as a result. Ultimately Ballard’s vision is still of a world before the fall, but the kind of ruin that he anticipates is very different from the vacant shopping malls and office complexes surrounded by empty parking lots and crumbling infrastructure that have become a common sight in Britain and the U.S. The question is whether shopping malls become ruins because they first become temples, as the novel seems to suggest — because consumerism is bound to fail as a religion — or whether shopping malls become ruins when too few can afford to go there anymore.

Kingdom Come ends up echoing John Betjeman’s 1937 poem “Slough,” in which the former poet laureate calls down bombs on the ugliness of urban sprawl. There’s a danger in letting the bombs fall where they may, however, and while Ballard’s consumers are not victims —  they want to be seduced by the flashy advertising images that Richard Pearson puts in front of them — they’re also not the people who designed the world in which they live. There is complicity too in a system that turns against communities after exploiting them for profit, and while Ballard gives needed attention to the ways in which nationalistic emotions, consumer loyalties, sporting competitions, and a love of recklessness rush into the vacuum of absent institutions in communities like Brooklands, omitting the history of their abandonment leaves the novel’s arguments a bit top heavy. It remains to be seen whether recent attempts to reclaim blighted shopping malls as green office parks, community centers, and high schools will be outliers or part of a larger trend in the new history of the suburban landscape. While Ballard’s warnings are still pertinent after the financial crisis, the novel’s idea that “the suburbs are the last great mystery,” as a space of illusions in which nothing is as it seems, may be replaced by a more instructive fascination with the origins and mysteries of ruins — a fascination capable of addressing both decadence and disaffection.