by J.G. Ballard
Synopsis (via The Ballardian): Richard Pearson, a 42-year-old advertising executive is driving from
central London to Brooklands, a town near the M25 on the western edge of
the city. A few weeks earlier Richard’s father, a retired airline
pilot, was fatally wounded during a shooting incident in the
Metro-Centre – a vast shopping mall and sports complex, in the centre of
Brooklands – when a deranged mental patient opened fire on a crowd of
shoppers. It soon becomes clear to Richard that there was more to the
incident than meets the eye. He senses that people are covering up what
really happened. His suspicions are confirmed when the local mental
patient arrested by police is released.
Pillars of the community, among them Dr Julia Goodwin a young doctor
who treated his father after the shooting, testify that the patient was
with them and could not have committed the crime. Richard resolves to
track down the real killer.
My god this novel packs a punch! I picked up my copy of this at a book sale because the $3 price tag was one I couldn't balk at and I've always heard such great things about Ballard, even though I've rarely picked up any of his books. All the reviews I've read of this book suggest it's vintage Ballard but since I can't vouch for that I'm going to do my best to explain why this book left me with my mouth hanging open days later.
As the synopsis describes Richard has headed back to the scene of his father's death in order to try and get some answers. I was actually a little confused at the start, when you join Richard he's struggling to find his way around the labyrinth of roads that tangle around the Heathrow suburbs and I felt as though the book had actually started two chapters earlier and somehow my edition was missing those crucial introductory pages. I was jarred by Richard's character, his motivation, the death of his father, the bizarre restaurant that he stops at, the old couple making out on the street. It was like I was one step behind or I was missing that final piece of the jigsaw that would allow me to see the picture clearly. It became pretty obvious that this is what Ballard wants you to feel. He wants you to be uncomfortable and confused and reading closely because what happens next will require your full attention.
The England he sets his story in, the suburbs surrounding the major highways and Heathrow airport are on the fringe of 'normal' society. They're the suburbs that you drive right by without giving a second glance or thought. Though they're relatively close to the action of London they're left to their own devices and left out of the major activity. They're near enough to the action and hubbub of London that they need stimulation but too far away to attain it with ease. Basically they're bored. They're bored and they have nothing better to do than go shopping or to the sports club to watch the latest soccer/rugby/hockey game.
They don't realise it but the people of Brooklands are spiraling out of control. The sports events have become a front for the "St Georgers," men and women wearing the St George cross, and going on rampages through the street terrorising anyone of ethnic or class difference. When Richard arrives at Brooklands he sees an Indian shop owner bar up his windows when someone in a St George shirt walks past, he sees a group of muslims escorted out of their mosque by the police as men and women with shopping bags around their wrists scream abuse and hurl rocks and punches in their direction. The air in Brooklands is tense and the only respite seems to be the astronomically large shopping centre that glows invitingly no matter where you are. But is it respite?
One review comment on the cover of my edition described this book as a dystopian novel. I'd have to disagree...sort of. In my mind this is event that leads to the dystopia. This is the build up of frustration, anger, hatred, stupidity and violence that ends society as we know it and plunges the world into a right load of shit. I haven't read too many books where I think "yep, this is what the world will look like when the world is on the precipice of the apocalypse". This book absolutely nailed it. The boredom, the rampant consumerism and the dangerous advertisements and inappropriate leaders/false idols. This is our world today dialled up a couple of notches.
The thing that sparked my interest was how real yet unreal this book was. It was almost like walking through a fun-house looking at yourself in all those crazy mirrors. You can recognise yourself but you're...different. The Metro Centre sounds like so many shopping centres I've walked through. The bright lights, soothing music, plastic shiny things adorning the walls and floors and ceilings. But then you take a closer look and you see the animatronic bears that are the shopping centres mascots. Nothing too strange about that, but then you notice the pots of honey and get well cards laid out in front of them to wish them well after the shooting that recently took place and claimed Richard's dad's life. You notice the slightly crazed fervour that the PR rep speaks with when he gives Richard a tour of the centre. You realise that people always seem to be either going to or from the shopping centre regardless of what time of day or night it happens to be.
Similarly the crowds at the sports games are recognisable, and not. You recognise the atmosphere that permeates the air post-game when the crowds move through the streets towards home, cars or buses. You recognise the team shirts, the singing the beer cans in hand. Then you notice the Pakistani family cowering behind a wall waiting for the crowd to pass, or the fact that the crowd doesn't actually seem to be heading home but pushing towards an area of town that's marked by broken windows, overturned cars and ominously dark houses.
The book manages to create this real build of unease as Richard spends more time in the town and realises it isn't quite the quaint suburban town he thought it was. Everyone seems to have hidden agendas and switch from trustworthy to questionable at best. The quest to get to the bottom of Richard's father's dead gains more importance then drops then gains more prominence. There is this faint whiff of absurdism, hilarity on the verge or hysteria throughout the novel. It's intoxicating and you find yourself swept up in it from time to time.
The book has three parts and covers the space of several months and like the start sometimes seems to black out chunks of information. It's such a weird book because in some ways it's like any murder mystery but in so many other ways it is anything but. All I can really say is that J.G. Ballard is amazing and has completely won my heart and mind with this book. I am a convert to the J.G Ballard way of life! His writing style is easy to read but holds landmines of truth and commentary just ready to explode out at you.
This book makes you feel ashamed for your consumerist behaviour but it never preaches. Instead it opens your eyes to the dangers of rampant advertising and unrestricted consumerism and the disgusting nature of sports hooliganism. It connects the two is such a complex and yet simple manner that it astounds and revolts. A must-read for anyone who wants a dystopian novel with a twist, a sci-fi a little closer to home and a mystery that's impossible to crack even though you know the answer from the start.
My rating: 4/5