< Kingdom Come Reviewed
Message To The Instincts: The 'Bad Is Good' Campaign.

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Ads Be Run…

For some particular reason, they call it shopping -- Richard Pearson

By Rick McGrath
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 semi-detached.
But no.
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 and into the English suburbs with its landscape of sports arenas, massive shopping centres… and violence.
Following 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.
In 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 it rests its case in the form of a mystery, although the quest for whodunit in Kingdom Come soon takes a back seat to the slightly comic landscape of philosophy, violence and psychopathology which quickly engulfs the characters and the reader.
Other reviewers have looked at Kingdom Come from its main themes of fascism and consumerism (and missed the point, I see), but because of my career in the ad industry (creative dept.), I have decided to look at this novel through the character of Richard Pearson, and the crucial ad campaign he creates which brings the book to its ultimate resolution. It's a great campaign, insofar as it is the essence of advertising itself, with unexpected and chilling results.

If you go down in the woods today,
you're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today,
you'd better go in disguise.
In Kingdom Come, Ballard describes the action through the eyes of one 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 qui
ckly 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.
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, and subconsciously reveals anxieties which he might alleviate with the unlikely solving of his father’s murder. Hey, it's not an ad campaign, but it's something to do. Pearson’s Hamlet-like quest 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 seems.
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. Everyone, of course, is hiding something. Or seems to be hiding something. Buzzing about Brooklands, Pearson susses out the odd ball locals and offers superb descriptions of Brooklands, with its Metro-Centre, sports facilities, insane asylum, courtroom, police station, streets and mobs.

Dazed and confused in this odd land of suburbia, Pearson stands out like a slogan without a brand, and his natural proclivity to link buyer and product only gels into consciousness when he meets 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 it's time to let the instincts take over. Then Dr Maxted makes the telling prediction, 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.... if rationality makes shopping boring, then maybe irrationality would make it... exciting. To Pearson, this sure sounds like the basis of an advertising campaign. But which psychopathology to promote?
Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
Pearson already knows. It turns out that he has already experimented with a new type of “strange” ad – unfortunately, the first campaign he tried it on 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 a tad 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 the "strange" approach. 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 career”.

What's truly subversive about this campaign, however, is its hidden meaning... this is not a campaign for the Metro-Centre, this is a campaign designed to release the demons in Pearson's brain.
Charged with purpose, Pearson immediately gets to work. All he needs is a pitchman. Enter David Cruise, the virtual TV face of the Metro-Centre and sports arenas. The medium is the message. Pearson begins his campaign by dreaming 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." Beautiful.

Cruise wonders: will this leader be a dictator? 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 becoming the 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… No slogans, no messages. New politics. No manifestos, no commitments. No easy answers. They decide what they want”.
OK, no message. But what is a non-message? For Pearson, that’s easy: “Madness is the key to everything. Small doses, applied when no-one is really looking.” Overlooking the nitpick that even a non-message is still a message (as we shall see), one could give Pearson the benefit of the doubt and suggest we'll be seeing something rather different from the usual monthly "sidewalk sale" event.
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. Can you count the number of times you're aware of fear? The myriad ways that anger is dispersed? 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, entertainment, governments.
Unwilling to 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.
Switching to Art Director mode, Ballard delves even further into nuances of the advertising campaign, as Pearson reveals his ongoing strategy for mixing in a little madness: giant billboards and relentless TV commercials and appearances which now show Cruise as a “fugitive and haunted hero of a noir film… as a trapped creature of strange and wayward moods – grimacing, frowning, angry, morose, hallucinating and obsessed.”
Wow. You wonder if Ballard had anyone in mind.

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.

The campaign itself is pure Noir, with its existential obsession with death. What I find amazing here is Ballard's sense of timing. After years of languishing in the shadows, Noir is making a Hollywood comeback, with the release of flicks like Sin City, Brick, the Black Dahlia, and reportedly the upcoming James bond movie, Casino Royale. Noir, of course, means Black, and Pearson has already told us that "black is the new masochism". In a typical noir film, the audience is given visual access to the protagonist's psychological nightmares, and the character often shifts from aggressor to victim, hunter to hunted. Foreshadowing for Cruise?

The novel describes three billboards and six television commercials. A sophisticated marketer, Pearson has designed a campaign which builds on itself through evocative scenes, each slightly more fantastic than the last. They are indeed zany, altho Pearson later calls them "ironic soft-sells", which is a masterpiece of understatement.

Billboard #1 shows Cruise, as a "fugitive and haunted hero", sitting at the wheel of his car, staring ahead at the open road, "and whatever nemesis lay in wait for him." Shades of Vaughan?

Billboard #2 Cruise is shown in a "nightmare replay of a Strindberg play", threatening and confused as he stares across a showroom of kitchens. Certainly not a manly place to be.

TV Spot #1 has Cruise staring "almost ecstatically" at a beat-up garbage can. The hallucinagenic spot.

In TV Spot #2 Cruise rings doorbells at random, and when the housewife answers the door, he scowls at her as if to hit her, or beg a place to stay. Irrationality of existence?

TV Spot #3 shows Cruise "haunting" the Brooklands racing circuit and his mind being "tortured" by squealing tires. Didn't that happen to Frankenstein?

TV Spot #4 shows Cruise following a group of schoolgirls across a Heathrow concourse "like a would-be child abductor." Time to up the ante into the forbidden.

In TV Spot #5 Cruise is shown howling from the roof of a multi-storey car park. Werewolves of London visit the burbs.

TV Spot #6 is just hinted at, but apparently the action takes place in a slaughterhouse. Pearson asks: "The abattoir? Not too gloomy?" And is answered: "Never. Existential choice." So fraught with death one hardly needs to know the plot.

Pearson himself calls these ads "tense but meaningless psychodramas", but of course the "meaning" is in the imagery itself --- death and violence. It's Dr Maxted's "elective insanity" dressed up in noir. No longer trapped in their civilized cage of guilty repression and empty minds, the populace of Brooklands quickly responds to Pearson's siren call of the instincts.

Does it work? Of course, and only too well. As Pearson notes, his advertisements build on each other in such a way that, "Together they made sense at the deepest levels, scenes from the collective dream forever playing in the back alleys of their mind." 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. His deep aggressions and sexual anxieties are reflected in the mobs around him. These basic instincts rule the streets and sports stadiums; the individual becomes a corporate thug, driven by Pearson's unconscious self-loathing.

Pearson, altho giddy with success, is aware of his own guilt in the tribal politicizing of Brookland's exciteable populace. At the same time his "strange" 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 the unconventional, Brookland’s “traditional middle class”. What? Yup, the peasants are burning down the horse barns again, dear. One of the funnier moments of the novel.
Pearson's moment of self-delusion finally comes as he's driving the streets. Reflecting on the violence, he muses to himself: “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.”

I don't know if I'd call it a humiliation -- that reveals Pearson's state of mind -- as most advertising practitioners would love to have their messages taken literally, as this means their audience still hasn't figured out the trick of it all -- that ads, like novels, are fictions. All Pearson really did was tap into an existing suppressed need among his viewers, and they did the rest. Where's the beef?

All ad campaigns come to an end, and for Pearson his run hits the wall when the Metro-Centre catches on fire. The Metro-Centre isn’t really in danger of burning down, but the now-iconic Cruise, dressed like a fireman, reveals his own madness and unleashes a paranoid rap about “people out there who want to destroy us”. Pearson’s dream for Cruise -- "the new leader" -- has finally taken form as fascism without a fuehrer – “a new kingdom where nothing was true or false”. Just like in a dream.

Just in case we still don't get it, Ballard neatly sums all up for us. In a meeting between Pearson and Dr Maxted, we learn that the sincere adman is merely a pawn in another game.

Dr Maxted: "...Then a new friend [Pearson] appeared with the right kind of skills and a taste for stylized violence."

Pearson: "A suburban Dr Goebbels?"

Dr Maxted: "You saw fascism as just another sales opportunity. Psychopathology was a handy marketing tool. David Cruise was your tailor's dummy.... a psychopath with genuine moral integrity."

Pearson: "Still, everyone admired him."

Dr Maxted: "Why not? We're totally degenerate. We lack spine, and any faith in ourselves. We have a tabloid world-view, but no dreams or ideals. We have to be teased with the promise of deviant sex. Our gurus tell us that coveting our neighbour's wives is good for us, and even conceivably our neighbour's asses. Don't honour your father and mother, and break free from the whole Oedipal trap. We're worth nothing, but we worship our barcodes. We're the most advanced society our planet has ever seen, but real decadence is far out of our reach. We're so desperate we have to rely on people like you to spin a new set of fairy tales, cosy little fantasies of alienation and guilt."

So much for English culture. But this pessimistic view is, of course, the basis for the novel in the first place. In an ad, ad, ad world, you get what you deserve.

Without a doubt, Pearson is an interesting addition to the stable of unstable Ballardian characters. By being "artistic" with his pathologies, Pearson (like his Ballardian cousins) manages to transform himself from a emotionally-damaged half-man into a complete, and wiser, individual. Ultimately, Pearson himself is the real advertisement for life against death. If the Metro-Centre campaign is an externalized version of Pearson's inner psychological state, then his recovery comes with its ultimate destruction. The ever more fashionable "blow-up" cure. Once again Ballard’s longstanding theme of personal redemption and affirmation is confirmed. Through Pearson, Ballard successfully creates his own advertisement for salvation. Buying stuff is boring. It's just voting for one corporation's stuff over another. But the artistic is always engaging, even if it's just an ad campaign.

And that is the great irony we chuckle over. Advertisements are artistic insofar as they are fictions, fantasies from an imaginary world which the product rules and defines. And they can and do influence the unwary, often through psychopathological messages. In a real way, Kingdom Come the novel is an advertisement itself: it could be a very long print ad warning about the real dangers of subversive dreams when they're carpet bombed on empty lives.

At six o'clock their Mummies and Daddies
Will take them home to bed,
Because they're tired little Teddy Bears.

Aside from my interest in Pearson, I found Kingdom Come (just what does that name mean, anyway?) to be equally as entertaining as the last three novels, each of which has fired a dystopian volley across our cultural bows. I disagree with reviewers who write that Ballard’s recent novels are repetitive rants with different plots, as I find these novels, and Kingdom Come in particular, hold the reader's interest not only for their dystopian warnings, but for their imaginative plotting, their deep understanding of violence, their fascination with inversions, especially of social status, and ultimate redemptive qualities. You want more? OK, it's also black humour, at its best.

Take characterization. Sure, you can say Ballard inhabits all the characters in this semi-sinister play. 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.” Ouch. Or repetition. Again, you can say Ballard loves to stay within the comfort zone of what he knows, but Ballard knows a lot about how certain types of repetition can build certain effects, and much of the novel's affect is generated by these now-iconic images. Critics of the repetitive never howl when they see the same motifs over and over in a painter’s output, so why should they take umbrage with words? Regardless, I’m willing to wade through the strangely 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 insight into human psychology.
Is Kingdom Come "Ballardian"? The dictionary says I should be looking for "dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments". Well, I see that, all right. Whew. But aside from its complex, linear plot (an offshoot of the first person POV), familiar characters and feelgood ending, Kingdom Come still has time to offer up one of the most fascinating ad campaigns ever launched in fiction, a superb set-piece of the Metro-Centre rotting away while being occupied, some incredibly astute insights into the psychology of consumerism, and an ever-sharp sense of irony and humour that may cause the uncareful to laugh out loud while reading. Here's a typical example: Ballard has a character describe Pearson as, "sane, kindly, with all the genuine sincerity of an advertising man." Wish I had thought of that.

I highly recommend it.

© Rick McGrath, October 2006

"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.

Read a great interview with JG Ballard about Kingdom Come. It's by Simon Sellars, and you can enjoy it here.

Bear photos: Joanne Murray.
Shopping centre photos: West Edmonton Mall, Canada

If you go down in the woods today,
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today,
You'd better go in disguise.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.
Every Teddy Bear who's been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There's lots of marvelous things to eat
And 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,
But safer to stay at home.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.
Picnic time for Teddy Bears...
The little Teddy Bears are having a lovely time today.
Watch them, catch them unawares,
And see them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily gad about.
They love 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.