[5 August 2011]
In the cold latter-day novels of the late J.G. Ballard (1930–2009), the entire idea of science-fiction almost seems passé. Instead of imagining the far future, or a world of today turned upside down by some deus ex machine of a calamity, the novels of this onetime Pied Piper of the speculative fiction movement didn’t ask for much if any suspension of disbelief.
In books like Cocaine Nights and Rushing to Paradise, Ballard instead plumbed the neuroses of the modern world by taking a particular ethnographic strata and bombarding it with a combination of satirical overkill and microscopically-observed sociological investigation. The people in these books were trapped in bell jars of their own downwardly-spiraling imaginations, occasionally threatening to take the rest of the world with them.
Millennium People is little different from many of these fictions, though its scope is broader. Published in England in 2003 but only just now being released in the United States, this is Ballard’s second-to-last novel (the American edition of what appears to be his final work, 2006’s Kingdom Come, is due in the spring of 2012). The multi-year delay in bringing it to the States could be for a number of reasons, not least of which could well have been something as prosaic as poor sales. But there’s also the wincingly blithe attitude of several of the novel’s characters towards violent terrorism, acts which the narrator gamely tries to resist taking part in at first, but soon appears to succumb to the ideology of their supposedly liberating shocks.
The narrator here is another of Ballard’s hollow men, the long line of psychically broken and emotionally frozen protagonists around whom the surreal battery of his fictions have swarmed. David Markham is a psychologist doing corporate research that he hates, not least because it’s funded by his father-in-law. At the novel’s opening, David and his wife Sally are just about to leave on a working vacation he sees as especially pointless, when they see a television broadcast of a bombing at Heathrow. Among the dead is David’s first wife. The search for her killer sends him undercover into a cabal of middle-class revolutionaries agitating for change in the affluent London development of Chelsea Marina.
Although the engine of the plot here is terrorism – the assassination of a popular television host, a horrific bombing at the Tate Modern, the destruction of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens – it’s this seemingly impossible revolt of the cosseted classes that takes the bulk of Ballard’s attention. Although Markham is initially resistant to the idea that the bourgeois could have anything to truly riot about, bit by bit he (and the novel along with it) comes around to the idea that the modern economy has in fact ground the middle class down into a servile powerlessness. Markham asks one of the Marina’s barricade-manners: “So you’re trapped?” She replies:
Right. Like the old working-class in their back-to-backs. Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software. Believe me, I know why the miners went on strike.
Ballard volleys back and forth from absurdity to drum-tight tension to evocative commentary in a sparsely-plotted novel whose every page is saturated with post-post-modernist ennui. Markham is a clueless hero, good only for giving voice to Ballard’s parsing of class structure in the global economy. He’s perpetually surprised by the most obvious developments as he chases down leads ranging from the revolt’s supposed godfather Richard Gould, a one-time doctor so irked at life that he finds even the act of cheering up terminally ill children an exercise in futility, to Kay Churchill, a former film lecturer whose disgust at modernity leads her to firebomb London’s National Film Theatre.
While Kay, a wind-up neurotic with a penchant for chewed nails and strenuously violent sex, is lampooned in the way that all fatuously deluded revolutionaries are destined to be, Ballard doesn’t ultimately condescend to the desperation that lies behind these spasms of chaos and delusional posturing. As one character notes, “No serious revolution should ever achieve its aims.”
With its vision of surveillance-state London and middle-managers battling with the police over their monthly maintenance fees, Ballard is hewing closer to an observational brand of fiction than he has almost never done before. In earlier fictions like High-Rise (the most obvious comparison), the best and the brightest also devolved into primitive tribal warfare. Only in that novel, the savagery was tempered by a cool and distant anarchic temperament that saw society’s collapse as somewhat inevitable and ultimately impossible to explain.
With the tighter sociological viewpoints of Millennium People, Ballard keeps the drama more in the realm of the absurd, but still strictly believable (there are hints of a dark and Martin Amis-esque urban satire here), albeit with glints of his futurist eye. Heathrow is described as “a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty town,” while exhibits at the huge power station-turned-art museum the Tate Modern are noted as “the art show as Führer spectacle, an early sign, perhaps, that the educated middle classes were turned towards fascism.”
Despite Ballard’s potent imagination and a gimlet eye for the overcrowded yet empty spaces of 21st century life, this is ultimately not a particularly satisfying read. His writing is still as evocative as ever, that clinical language still as chilling, but the plotting is too haphazard and mechanical to pull it all together into the great work of fiction that this well could have been.
Nevertheless, as ever, there remain some passages of diamond perfection. This is particularly true the farther Ballard gets from the thin plot structure he’s left himself and when he allows the book to take dark wing on the anxieties of the age.
We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive. We think we believe in God but we’re terrified by the mysteries of life and death. We’re deeply self-centered but can’t cope with the idea of our finite selves. We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature. We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to protected by huge taboos. We believe in equality but hate the underclass. We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death. We’re an accident of nature, but we think we’re at the centre of the universe. We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal.
Ostensibly, the “we” Ballard’s narrator is talking about here is the educated bourgeoisie of England. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine the citizen of the modern world whom this passage could not at least partially, and frighteningly, describe.