Thursday, October 05, 2006

Review: Kingdom Come, J.G. Ballard

Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books… The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” This is such a sensible idea that it’s a wonder it never caught on. Naturally there are limitations. It would be difficult to fully communicate an aesthetic in this way, other than the aesthetic of the summary or commentary itself. You would struggle to reduce Nabokov, say, to a Borgesian meta-essay. The purely conceptual novel, however, seems a perfect candidate for this kind of reduction. If no particular value is placed on the aesthetics of the idea’s presentation, why bother with a novelistic presentation at all? Why not compress the key concepts into an essay, a commentary (fictional, quasi-fictional or factual), or even a short story? Why bother (to return to Borges) “setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes”?

J.G. Ballard is guilty of just this kind of idea-stretching in his new novel, Kingdom Come. Ballard discusses the novel’s central concept – suburbia as the crucible of a new fascism, driven by consumerism, sport and boredom – in several recent interviews, but rather than developing and deepening the concept Kingdom Come merely reiterates it. This is not to denigrate Ballard the thinker; on the contrary, his take on the world is as fascinating and challenging as ever. Still, Kingdom Come is functional literature, designed to say something but not, perhaps, be something.

As a novel, Kingdom Come is redundant. Its existence is predicated on its driving ideas to such an extent that its other elements are irrelevant. Characters do not speak, they make speeches; events unfold in order to provide yet another opportunity to state the novel’s central premise. At first I found the relentless flow of ideas intriguing, even exciting in the way all dystopian fantasies are exciting. However, once you get the concept – and this is a novel that makes certain you get the concept – there is little left to be going on with. This has the effect not only of dampening one’s enthusiasm for the novel qua novel, but also of diluting its vision. If you pick up Kingdom Come because you are interested in its ideas, you may well put it down not wanting to think about them ever again.

Kingdom Come might have been saved from redundancy by some kind of aesthetic sensibility. Of course Ballard is not interested in “traditional” characterisation, plots, and so forth, and that’s all to the good. The problem is that Ballard is apparently too lazy to come up with any kind of counter-aesthetic, relying instead on a kind of elementary pastiche of novelistic devices. It hasn’t always been so. 1970’s The Atrocity Exhibition, for example, is a novel in which style is commensurate with subject matter; it is valid as a novel in that it both transcends and incarnates its subject matter. Kingdom Come fails to achieve anything approaching a connection between style and ideas. I find it odd that somebody so professedly at odds with “tradition” chooses to convey his ideas in such a straightforward manner – and then does not bother to do it well.

The ideas and themes of Kingdom Come could be explored in a myriad interesting, arresting ways, whether as a novel or as a kind of Borgesian short piece. Instead, Ballard adheres so strictly to traditional novelistic forms that one begins to question his motives. Surely Ballard, of all people, is not merely trying to sell us something.

Cross-posted at Sars.

1 comment:

TimT said...

Interesting review - couple of things come to mind:

- of course Woody Allen, S J Perelman, and quite a few other writers, mostly comic, did take up Borges' idea and write summaries of novels that were never written, biographies of lives that never happened, fictional interviews with real/semi-real characters.
I have to admit, I've often been more interested in things that are written about great writers than the things written by the great writers themselves. I find reviews of Ulysses much more interesting than the real thing.

- There's an early review of Ballard by a contemporary of his, Brian Aldiss, in the SF history "Billion Year Spree". Aldiss says that Ballard's style suits short stories, rather than novels, exactly because of the weird Ballard ideas. He was referring specifically to The Atrocity Exhibition!
I agree with him; that's the problem with most sf; it isn't really suitable for anything more than short stories - which doesn't mean it's not fascinating, but you kind of wish sf authors had a sense of proportion. I've read a few Ballard short stories and novels, and I greatly prefer the short stories.

- This being said, I don't have anything against a novel of ideas, per se. Obviously, all novels are novels of ideas; just some ideas are weirder than others. But if I pick up something longer than a short story, then I want the ideas to keep coming, in a dynamic flow of words. I don't much care how they come - so long as it works! I've read novels where the characters don't make dialogues but make speeches; some writers can make this work, others don't. I've read novels that are essentially long essays with a couple of characters thrown in; some writers can make it work; with other writers, the result is tedious and dreary. It all depends!