Bedside Manner

Strip mall apocalypse

Bedside Manner
by Milana Trachtenberg

Other than perusing book stores and occasionally the semi-annual Austin Record Convention, shopping of any sort is not high on my list of things I enjoy doing; never has been, and at my age, undoubtedly never will.

If anything the situation has gotten worse since I had to move my mother here from Los Angeles fifteen months ago. She loves to shop and since I’m essentially her only set of wheels I all too often get shlepped out to the mall so she can take advantage of whatever sale is in the offing. 

Who can forget that in the wake of 9/11 when the country had been shaken to its core, George W. Bush, in a gesture that in many ways crystallized both the clueless nature of his leadership and the shortsightedness of his whole nefarious regime, attempted to salve the nation’s devastating wounds by encouraging everyone to go shopping? 

Maybe it’s just me and I’m missing the punch line. I realize we live in a society where consumerism fuels the fires of our capitalist system but when is enough enough? I often think back to my freshman year of college, a time rife with revolutionary fervor on campuses across the country. My sociology professor would laugh at the radical rhetoric that was often tossed around but she was dead serious when she proclaimed to the class one day, “You want to see a revolution in America?  If nobody bought a new car for one year, you’d see a collapse of our economic system.” Economics was never my strong suit, but it’s still certainly food for thought, especially in light of the recent government bailout of the auto industry.

So when I saw that J.G. Ballard’s “new” novel, Kingdom Come (W.W. Norton), promised to deliver a frightening take on contemporary consumerist culture, I was anxious to dive in. Originally published in England in 2006 and forthcoming this month in America, it is Ballard’s final novel before his passing in 2009. The author is best known for Crash (1973) and Empire of the Sun (1984), both adopted for the big screen by top shelf directors David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg, respectively. Ballard’s books and stories have been aptly described by the Collins English Dictionary as reflecting a ”dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments.”

In Kingdom Come, Ballard envisions a contemporary suburbia where unfettered consumerism has given birth to a fascist mentality that manifests as worshiping corporate enterprise and competitive sports, offering allegiance to a charismatic TV personality whose images are projected onto giant jumbo-trons and erupting into persistent violence against immigrant minorities. Set in the bedroom communities of suburban London along the M25 out around Heathrow Airport, the focal point is an enormous, domed Metro-Centre, “the St. Peter’s Square of the retail world.” It’s virtually a city onto itself, one that attracts huge crowds to the unlimited shopping opportunities, first-rate sports facilities and state-of-the-art accoutrements intended to provide the entertainment and emotional nourishment missing from the empty lives of its bored, working class patrons. 

There’s also a murder mystery that introduces us to the story’s protagonist, an out-of-work advertising executive who has come to suburban Brooklands to try and find who killed his father. The murder soon becomes a subplot but it acts as the catalyst in unraveling the ugly truths behind this consumerist paradise-turned-nightmare. Conceived almost a decade ago, Ballard did not necessarily write a futuristic novel. For this reason alone his story is all the more unsettling because so much of what he describes is already present on our consumer society or else its possibility is barely hidden beneath the surface. While reading the book I couldn’t help but think of those seemingly endless miles of national chain stores surrounded by a sea of concrete parking lots just north of us along I-35 in Williamson County and also north of Dallas in Richardson. They are physically almost the horizontal equivalent of the vertical Metro-Centre described in Kingdom Come.  And let’s not even dare to touch upon the right-wing politics that just happen to be a fact of life of those communities. One would certainly hope that Ballard’s fascist vision never becomes a reality.

In the past few days I’ve been able to whip though about half of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf), the new short story collection by Nathan Englander.  This young writer exploded onto the literary scene in 1999 with a stunning debut, his first set of short stories, For The Relief of Unbearable Urges, which garnered across the board critical acclaim and earned the author several prestigious awards. He has recently adapted the lead story in that collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, into a play that will open at New York’s Public Theater later this year.  His follow-up to Urges was the sometimes humorous, sometimes frightening 2007 novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, set in Buenos Aires in 1976 during Argentina’s Dirty War. Englander was raised in a tight-knit, Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island and, for a few years, lived in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, his writing bears heavily on Jewish themes and the new collection is no exception.  The title story is an uncomfortably chilling statement on trust among friends and family while “Sister Hills” takes place in Israel’s occupied territories and provides an insightful perspective on how ancient beliefs can lead to heartbreaking results in the modern world.

Some years ago fellow Austin Chronicle book reviewer Wayne Alan Brenner, upon learning that I was a big fan of crime fiction, suggested that I check out the Swedish writer Henning Mankell. This was not long after Mankell had introduced his now renowned series with police inspector Kurt Wallender. Although the author was new to me, I trusted my colleague’s good taste and intended to follow through on his recommendation. I recently came across the first Wallender mystery, Faceless Killers (Vintage), and as its been a while since my last a crime novel indulgence, I can hardly wait.

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Bedside Manner, J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come, Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Henning Mankell, Kurt Wallender

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