At 75 years of age you might think
the irascible JG Ballard might be bored with finger-pointing and setting up
future "I told you so" scenarios from the sedate safety of his Shepperton
With the publication of his latest
novel, Kingdom Come, Ballard once again is "picturing the psychology of
the future", this time moving his critical eye beyond the culture of business
parks and gated communities into the English suburbs with its landscape of
sports arenas, massive shopping centers and violence.
closely in the stylistic footprints of his prior three novels -- Cocaine
Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People -- Ballard
continues his longtime role of Psychological Town Crier, this time pealing out
warnings about the possibility of a fascist republic growing from the bored
suburb's fascination with sports, nationalism and consumerism.
Kingdom Come the hero is a massive shopping centre; the plotline an advertising
slogan. Off to the side, one group of professionals work together in an attempt
to create a fledgling fascist state so the authorities will arrive, stamp out
the insurrection, tear down the shopping malls, then leave so the original
residents can once again enjoy an old-fashioned, bucolic middle-class rural
existence. On the other hand, another group seeks to increase shopping centre
sales by initiating a "subversive" advertising campaign to change the "mental
ecology" of Brooklands. And then there are the gun toting crazies who initiate
and finalize this surreal re-enactment of The Teddy Bear's Picnic.
Kingdom come uses the first person point of view all the better to
"reveal" the story, although the linear effect is sometimes slow, especially if
the narrator likes to go off in tangents -- and "rest its case" in the form of
a mystery, although the quest for whodunit in Kingdom Come soon takes a back
seat to the flatscreen landscape of philosophy, violence and psychopathology
which quickly engulfs the characters and the reader.
have looked at Kingdom Come from its main themes of fascism and consumerism,
but because of my career in the creation of advertising messages, I have
decided to look at a specific aspect of this novel: the character of Richard
Pearson, and the crucial ad campaign he creates which brings the book to its
If you go down in the woods today,
sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today,
go in disguise.
In Kingdom Come, Ballard describes the action
through the eyes of an enigmatic and amusing bumbler named Richard Pearson, a
recently-redundant advertising agency account executive who leaves his London
flat (after his wife has castrated him professionally before kissing him off
personally) to venture out into the suburbs to a town called Brooklands, off
the M25 freeway, to finalize the estate of his recently-murdered father.
Once arriving at Brooklands Pearson shares the fate that befalls many
Ballard characters, and quickly discovers that all is not as it seems, and that
dark and sinister forces lurk beneath the seeming peacefulness of the suburbs,
"the last great mystery", as described by Brooklands Police Sergeant Mary
Falconer. Initially suspicious and paranoid, Pearson stumbles along in a sort
of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation manner, reviewing the facts and gleaning
information out of often antagonistic interviews with the novel's other main
characters. As an amateur "detective" Pearson shows off some of the skills
learned from his advertising career: his ability to listen, and even better
ability to read people's body language, a necessary trait for the proper
manipulation of visual images. Buzzing about Brooklands, Pearson plods through
a Kafka-like chain of professional offices, sussing out the oddball locals and
offering superb descriptions of Brooklands, with its Metro-Centre, sports
facilities, insane asylum, courtroom, police station, streets and
intersections, and perhaps most tellingly, his relationship with his
Yup, Dad is bad. Once again Ballard can't resist making
Pearson another one of his oedipally-challenged protagonists. We discover his
father abandoned the family when the junior adman was only five, leaving us
with the notion he must have felt some guilt over that -- which requires
punishment -- and with no one to shepherd his growth into adulthood, he must
have transferred his desire for fatherly approval onto society as a whole. And
vice-versa. We learn his mother was "distracted" and let the boy run free,
which must have also enhanced his infantile feelings of being man of the
family. And subsequent guilt. Repressed and then successfully transformed into
an acceptable career: polishing the slippers of the late capitalist age.
Visiting his father's flat rekindles emotions about long-gone dad, and
while rifling through his father's possessions Pearson realizes he never really
knew the man, but worshipped some infantile ideal far removed from reality.
Piqued by this revelation, and dad's immaculate flat, it dawns on him that if
dad had stuck around his youth might have been very different: his uniformed
father might have snapped the whip around young Richard's ears, and he wonders
if pater might have used "discipline as a way of instilling love" and
subconsciously reveals anxieties which he might alleviate with the unlikely
solving of his father's "murder". Pearson's mania for revenge and redemption,
however, is cooled somewhat with the realization that his father, the idealized
pilot who once flew the world, appears to be a member of the local St George
brigade, complete with marching colours and biographies of Hitler. Or so it
After this discovery, Pearson doesn't get very far in solving
the crime, but he does obtain a lot of market research about the area and its
population. After his classic Jensen sports car is blown up, and a poorly
planned political uprising fizzles out because local TV personality David
Cruise refuses a set-up to assume the role of a fascist dictator, Pearson once
again finds himself on the streets, like a slogan without a brand.
Pearson's psychic dislocation with his past and move towards redemption comes
after a discussion he has with Dr Maxted, a psychiatrist who introduces him to
the concept of "elective insanity" which is "waiting inside us, ready to come
out when we need it". This "willed madness" is a devolutionary step, a jump
back to "primate behaviour at its most extreme". Sounds like its time to let
the instincts take over. And Dr Maxted agrees, telling Pearson: "the future is
going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathologies, all
of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a
rational world and the boredom of consumerism." Hmmm.... rational to
irrational. Bored to excited. Consumers to producers. The three pillars of an
Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
Pearson has a
brainstorm. It turns out that he has already experimented with a new type of
"strange" ad unfortunately, the first campaign they tried worked so
poorly he was fired over it. Full kudos for being brave, but the campaign for a
new micro-car - "Mad is bad. Bad is good." - does seem
inappropriate for the product. Shades of Crash. And with that kind of
sentence structure, we wonder: was Tarzan the pitchman? And the fact people
died as a result of the campaign? "Another of the great advertising
breakthroughs that got nowhere." You can hear Ballard chuckling in the
background. And now, a second chance for our hero. Again undeterred by thoughts
of consequences, Pearson decides to reprise his radical ad campaign:
"Brooklands and the motorway towns were the ultimate consumer test panel, and
here I could put into practice the subversive ideas that had cost me my
Charged with purpose, Pearson achieves the god-like state of
creative transcendence, and creates The Big Idea: All he needs is a pitchman.
Once again, enter David Cruise, the virtual TV face of the Metro-Centre and
sports arenas. The medium is the message. Pearson begins his campaign and
dreams Cruise's impossible dream: "I see you as tomorrow's man. Consumerism is
the door to the future, and you're helping to open it. People accumulate
emotional capital, as well as cash in the bank, and they need to invest those
emotions in a leader figure."
Pearson is quick to rationalize this
type of leader from the dictator figure created for, and refused by Cruise.
Will he lead a dictatorship? No. "It's a new kind of democracy, where we vote
at the cash counter, not the ballot box. Consumerism is the greatest device
anyone has invented for controlling people
. For some particular reason,
they call it shopping. But it's really the purest form of politics."
Cruise, of course, succumbs to this fantasy of Prime Minister of Pitchmen, and
wonders what his message will be. Pearson outlines his brilliant strategy:
"Message?... There is no message. Messages belong to the old politics
slogans, no messages. New politics. No manifestos, no commitments. No easy
answers. They decide what they want."
But what form does a non-message
take? For Pearson, that's easy: "Madness is the key to everything. Small doses,
applied when no-one is really looking."
Regardless of all the novel's
ranting about consumerism and violence and fascism, I find this marketing
insight perhaps the most chilling prediction of Kingdom Come. Instinctive
advertising a direct message to the irrational, the purely emotional.
It's about using psychopathology, after all. It's a chilling thought not
because it could be a campaign as Ballard imagines it, but because it is a
campaign which is currently being successfully employed by, oh, advertising for
the fashion industry, Hollywood, political parties.
leave the glory high of a successful pitch, Pearson goes on to coach Cruise in
aspects of how to pull off this acting job: "Be nice most of the time, but now
and then be nasty, when they least expect it
. Now and then slip in a hint
of madness, a little raw psychopathology. Remember, sensation and psychopathy
are the only way people contact with each other today." No kidding. So it is
with little surprise that we discover that while coaching Cruise to encourage
his audience to act a little mad that Pearson hits upon his own, private desire
"every so often people want to be disciplined by someone."
Oedipal backlash, indeed! Where was daddy with the strap when you really needed
him? Pearson goes on: "Punished, and loved. But not like a fair-minded parent.
More like a moody jailer
People need a bit of abuse in their lives.
Masochism is the new black, and always has been. It's the mood music of the
future." Sounds like mom, that moody jailer, may have spared the rod and
psyched the child into punishing itself.
Switching to Art Director
mode, Ballard delves even further into nuances of the advertising campaign, as
Pearson dreams up an ongoing strategy for mixing a little madness in the
message: everything from retailer badges that could be sewn on the shirts of
racist groups ("reinforcing the sense that people's lives were only complete
when they advertised the consumer world"), to billboards and TV commercials
which now show Cruise as a "fugitive and haunted hero of a noir
as a trapped creature of strange and wayward moods grimacing,
frowning, angry, morose, hallucinating and obsessed."
Quite the image.
Wonder if Pearson is describing himself.
Does it work? Of course, and
only too well. The population goes literally crazy, the cash registers ring,
Cruise has his audience transfixed, Metro-Centre becomes more like a
self-contained church, and all is outwardly well in Happy Valley. By day. By
night Brooklands reflects the dark side of Pearson's relentless campaign. The
basic instincts rule the streets and sports stadiums; the individual become
Pearson is also confused or ignorant about his own role in
the politicization of the populace. At the same time his campaign is running,
he is suddenly taking little side trips to either observe or ineffectually try
to help the people his campaign is hurting: Asians and East Indians (Brooklands
seems woefully lacking in other ethnic groups), and, just as a tip of the hat
to unconvention, Brookland's "traditional middle class". What? You have to ask
yourself: is this a function of Pearson's guilt, or just Ballard trying to
balance out the action with the oppressed, as well as oppressors?
Ballard sums up Pearson's ambivalence
about his campaign's success succinctly, and at the same time reveals his
proclivity for self-delusion. Driving the streets, he recounts: "I saw myself
as taking part in a merchandising scheme in a suburban shopping mall, using a
'bad is good' come-on that was meant to be the ultimate in ironic soft sells. I
had recruited a third-rate cable presenter and some-time actor to play the
licensed jester, the dwarf at the court of the Spanish kings. But the irony had
evaporated, and the slogan had become a political movement
The ad man was
faced with the final humiliation of being taken literally."
The hoist on your own petard trick. Most ad guys are superb at rationalizing
campaigns that don't work this is the first time I've heard one complain
about the opposite. Maybe it's because Pearson's conscience is bothering him,
maybe it's because he's insecure about where the idea will go.
success of his "ironic soft sell" campaign, which lifts him to local celebrity,
Pearson next discovers his father was not a nazi marcher, but in fact a
deep-imbedded spy out to thwart the bullyboys. Dad flipsides from devil to god,
and Pearson's relief is palpable: "I no longer needed to avoid the mirrors in
the apartment." Sins of the father reflecting in the son? Or the end of
self-loathing for Pearson, and reconciliation at last?
campaigns come to an end, and for Pearson his run hits the wall when the
Metro-Centre catches on fire. Its effect on Brooklands is like 9/11 on the US
the event was witnessed mainly on TV, and the jolt in audience figures
turned newscasters into mouthpieces of the irrational. The Metro-Centre isn't
really in danger of burning down, but the now-iconic Cruise, dressed like a
fireman, unleashes a paranoid rap about "people out there who want to destroy
us." Pearson's creation has finally revealed itself as fascism without a
fuehrer "a new kingdom where nothing was true or false."
Cruise's predictable assassination no more is mentioned of the "Mad Is Good"
campaign, and all turns out reasonably well for Pearson, who receives his civic
approvals, discovers his father wasn't a nazi, finds out how he was killed, and
gets Dr Goodwin (thanks, James Bond) in the end. It all fades with a warning
about all being repeated in the distant future. Cue sunset and fini.
All in all, Pearson is an interesting addition to the stable of unstable
Ballardian characters. For the first time in a novel Ballard chooses as his
protagonist a "broadcast professional", and obviously uses the opportunity to
vent some of his pet theories and observances about the state of British
advertising, although as an old ad guy myself, I must say that Ballard's "Mad
is bad. Bad is good." campaign would only work in a place where civilization's
laws and threats of punishment have little impact on instinctual needs. Like a
novel. Or the USA.
Ballard, of course, has not created a level playing
field. Like in all his defined landscapes, Brooklands makes it easy for Pearson
to dominate there appears to be no other media as competition. But
that's a silly quibble, as the great irony Ballard chuckles over is that all
ads are insane fictions, metaphors from a world which the product defines, and
they can and do influence the unwary, often through psychopathological
messages, which in North America are usually based on two basic emotions: fear
and greed. They work like crazy.
But Ballard goes deep with this
character. Ultimately, Pearson is the real advertisement. No message, just form
and style. If the manifest is the mad campaign, with its subtext of anxiety and
desire, then Pearson is the latent, revealing Ballard's suggested route to
mental health, wacky as it may seem. But there's no substitute for seizing the
moment and following through. Pearson may be oedipally challenged, but his ego
is still strong enough to take its punishment and continue thru to success.
Once again Ballard's long-standing theme of personal redemption and affirmation
is confirmed. Through Pearson, Ballard successfully creates his own obsessive
advertisements for sanity and reason. Irony within irony.
If you go
down in the woods today, you'd better not go alone.
It's lovely down in the
woods today, but safer to stay at home.
Aside from my interest in
Pearson, I found Kingdom Come (just what does that name mean, anyway?) to be
fraught with the same stylistic idiosyncracies of the last three novels. Many
reviewers have intimated that Ballard's novels are basically repetitive rants
with a plot, but I find these novels, ultimately, tend to hold their interest
not for their exorbitant storylines, but for their speeches, their insider
jokes, their deep irony and satirical spirit.
Ballard inhabits all the characters in this semi-sinister morality play. Like
fingers on the hand of god, each character flexes their fist and pummels away
at the evils of consumerism, nationalism, hooliganism, infantilism, boredomism,
instinctualism pretty well the complete array of unaware activities
undertaken by the sweaty working classes of suburbia.
Does this hurt
the story? Many reviewers think so, but for them Ballard already has an answer.
As he told the BBC in 2002: "Characterisation, we are always told, is the key
to drama, but this is a literary notion that serves the interests of
unimaginative novelists. In any case, it is untrue to life, where we can work
with people in the same office for years, or even share the same bed in a
tolerable marriage, and know next to nothing about their real characters until
a sudden crisis occurs." As such, Kingdom Come is a perfect example of revealed
knowledge. It is a story basically told after the fact, as each character tends
to review the previous action and comments on its meaning vis-à-vis the
major themes of the work. Undramatic? Perhaps. Unimaginative? Never.
Repetitive? Certainly. But Ballard has never been afraid of themes, nor afraid
of repeating them, as if he has to paint them anew with every scene, every
character. Critics of the repetitive never howl when they see the same motifs
over and over in a surrealist artist's output, so why should they take umbrage
with words? Regardless, I'm willing to wade through the familiar to find a
rare, jewel-like simile (ever notice how many he uses? I bet they are the truly
revealing messengers of meaning) or an outrageous description.
most unfortunate aspect of Kingdom Come is Ballard's lack of personal knowledge
of today's technology, much less tomorrow's. His characters fare no better than
portable phones, and Pearson does have one brief sit down at his father's
computer, but by and large it's old school communications, with TV still king
and today's revolutionary devices basically ignored. Granted, we all know
Ballard is not keen on hardware, much preferring the more elastic qualities of
mental software, but if he's to stay in the realm of realism, then he has
better make more of an attempt to keep up with the realism end of the ipod. Too
bad Pearson didn't run a blog and certainly the Metro-Centre should have
had a web site.
Is Kingdom Come actually Ballardian? I'd say barely,
given the extraordinarily uncanny work of his youth, but even with its
meandering and complex plot, obsessive characters, and implausible ending,
Kingdom Come features some incredible lines "For some particular reason,
they call it shopping" -- astute psychology, and an ever-sharp sense of irony
and satire that may cause the uncareful to laugh out loud while reading.
"I've always felt that out in the suburbs one finds the real England - out
here with takeaways and video rental culture people are better off as their
imaginations can follow their money," he told BBC World Service's Meridian
Masterpiece programme in February of 2002.
Obviously, this isn't
Ballard decrying the liberating forces of literature. That would be the
The most glaring error in Kingdom Come is Ballard's
lack of personal knowledge of today's technology, much less tomorrow's. His
characters fare no better than portable phones, and Pearson does have one brief
sit down at his father's computer, but by and large it's old school
communications, with TV still king and today's revolutionary devices basically
ignored. Granted, we all know Ballard is not keen on hardware, much preferring
the more elastic qualities of mental software, but if he's to stay in the realm
of realism, then he has better make more of an attempt to keep up with the
realism end of the ipod. Too bad Pearson didn't run a blog and certainly
the Metro-Centre should have had a web site.
Is Kingdom Come actually
Ballardian? I'd say barely, given the extraordinarily uncanny work of his
youth, but even with its thin plot, cardboard characterizations, and
implausible ending, Kingdom Come features some incredible lines "For
some particular reason, they call it shopping" -- astute psychology, and an
ever-sharp sense of irony and satire that may cause the uncareful to laugh out
loud while reading.
"I've always felt that out in the suburbs one
finds the real England - out here with takeaways and video rental culture
people are better off as their imaginations can follow their money," he told
BBC World Service's Meridian Masterpiece programme in February of 2002.
THE TEDDY BEARS PICNIC SONG
If you go down in
the woods today,
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the
You'd better go in disguise.
For every bear that ever
Will gather there for certain because
Today's the day the
Teddy Bears have their picnic.
Every Teddy Bear who's been good
sure of a treat today.
There's lots of marvelous things to eat
wonderful games to play.
Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
'Cause that's the way the
Teddy Bears have their picnic.
If you go down in the woods today,
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely down in the woods today,
safer to stay at home.
For every bear that ever there was
gather there for certain because
Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their
Picnic time for Teddy Bears...
The little Teddy Bears are
having a lovely time today.
Watch them, catch them unawares,
them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily gad about.
to play and shout.
They never have any care.
At six o'clock their
Mummies and Daddies
Will take them home to bed,
Because they're tired
little Teddy Bears.
*JG Ballard 2006 photo by KC
© Rick McGrath 10/