I'm not sure why, but people are always asking me what I'm up to at the moment, as if they suspect I don't get up to much at all. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for writers. So when I have a book to review, I have to keep telling people what it's like. Of course, once I've had that conversation a few times, I more or less write it down and there you go, job done.
Oh, all right, there's a bit more to it, but . . . Anyway, the new J G Ballard aroused a fair amount of curiosity, so I had to explain several times daily, "It's about how consumerism is leading to fascism." The response was, pretty uniformly, "Eh?" Well, quite. This need not worry Ballard, as he is not trying to promote an immediately assimilable idea, a kind of instant cliché, but trying to see ahead and make connections not yet readily apparent.
At least he thinks he is. But I wonder if he might not be doing a thriller remake of George Orwell's Coming Up for Air, a work of the 1930s when fascism really was on the march; and I wonder, too, if he might not be sharing in Orwell's fastidious distrust of the lower orders - not so much the poor, but the average sort.
The narrator, Richard Pearson, a recently redundant ad executive from Chelsea, goes to the Surrey suburb of Brooklands to investigate the death of his father, who was apparently killed when a mad gunman ran amok in the shopping mall. But all is not what it seems. No, it hardly would be, would it? Perhaps we are in cliché country after all. Our hero even drives a "character car", a 1970s Jensen, a "stylish tourer from a vanished age of motoring". An attractive woman chucks herself at him like he was a tough private eye in the movies. A dodgy doctor up to his neck in the conspiracy warns him, "Brooklands is dangerous. You're going to get hurt." And, quite delightfully, a sexy blonde copper says, "Go back to London, Mr Pearson. You didn't really know your father. It's too late to start creating a whole lifetime's memories of him."
Have you ever been interviewed in a murder inquiry? No? Well, what it's like is, it's nothing whatever like that. All the same, I was taken with the copper, Sergeant Falconer. Ballard, speaking through Pearson, compares her to "a strait-laced but vulnerable teacher aware that her class had seen her in a piece of questionable behaviour". She is perhaps the best thing in the novel.
But then Ballard schematically introduces a female doctor of similarly quirky nerviness and mysterious intentions, which spoils the effect a little. The copper and the doctor equate to the "bad girl" and "good girl" who figure in every Bond film, and you are meant to try to guess which is which.
The characters keep explaining the subtext to Pearson. "Our party insignia are the gold and platinum loyalty cards. Risible? Yes, but people thought the Nazis were a bit of a joke. The consumer society is a kind of soft police state. We think we have choice, but everything is compulsory." "We're all children today. Like it or not, only consumerism can hold a modern society together. It presses the right emotional buttons . . . People long for authority, and only consumerism can provide it." "We're facing a new kind of man and woman - narrow-eyed, passive, clutching their store cards." Local sports clubs mobilise hordes of white thugs wearing St George's Cross shirts - a recent real-world fashion that clearly gives Ballard an Orwellian shudder - to go round ethnically cleansing the local Asians in riots that may be orchestrated by the police and high-up conspirators. Hmm.
Ballard was writing before the World Cup, when the England flag was widely adopted and "owned" by non-white groups. And British Indians as a rule support the England cricket side against Pakistan, and British Pakistanis support England against India, and they all support England against Australia. You wonder if old J G has quite got with the programme lately.
The Brooklands shopping mall dominates everyone's lives the way the Cheerful Credit Building Society does in Coming Up for Air. But Orwell was famously wrong about building societies - he thought they built the Metroland houses as well as lending money on them, and he thought they were also into health insurance and funeral services and everything else, cradle-to-grave - and Ballard's analysis may be just as wonky. Yet Orwell's greatest fears - jackbooted bully-boys running Europe, then the bombers overhead - of course came true. And although current politics is kind of consumerist, with pledge cards and focus groups, and a truly peculiar majoritarianism at large (no smoking at bus shelters, for crying out loud), it is hard to see Ballard's nightmare happening, or anything like it. Still, it would be churlish not to appreciate his rather exciting imaginative input.