Book Review: ‘Millennium People’ by J.G. Ballard
When J.G. Ballard died in April 2009, he left behind a body of work dominated by a few key ideas. First were the erotic possibilities of violence, as embodied by his 1973 novel “Crash.” Equally important was his sense of suburban life as not just soul-dead but also dangerous — where beneath a surface layer of conformity we find ugliness and rage. It’s easy, in an age of workplace violence and school shootings, to take such a vision for granted; what Ballard is reflecting back at us is the essence of ourselves. But when he first explored these concepts in the 1960s, it was a departure as radical in its way as any of that era.
For Ballard, nominally a science-fiction writer but actually one of the great postmodernists, the point was that “in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom,” an aesthetic that marks books including “Vermilion Sands” and “Running Wild.” His workseeks to illuminate our hearts of darkness while undermining our assumptions about what literature is meant to do. “The bourgeois novel,” he told Salon in 1997, “is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters.”
This tension — between the comforts offered by the bourgeois novel and the chaos of the world we occupy — resides at the center of “Millennium People,” published in England in 2003 but only now available in the United States. Narrated by a psychologist named David Markham, whose ex-wife, Laura, is killed in a bomb attack at London’s Heathrow Airport, it evokes both Ballard’s fascination with the implications of violence and his sense of the middle class as suspended between desperation and control.
For Markham, in line to become director of a research institute, life appears to have a narrative, a flow. But after Laura’s death, he realizes that this has never been anything more than a set of self-deceptions, an illusion about society. “Look at the world around you, David. What do you see?” a disaffected priest named Stephen Dexter asks him. “An endless theme park, with everything turned into entertainment. Science, politics, education — they’re so many fairground rides. Sadly, people are happy to buy their tickets and climb aboard.”
Dexter belongs to a band of urban revolutionists who may or may not be involved in the airport bombing, and with whom Markham gets involved. Yet for all that the psychologist believes he is infiltrating the group, in the end, it is its members who infiltrate him. “I had changed,” he tells us late in the novel. “The guinea pigs had lured the experimenter into the maze.”
This is the key conflict of “Millennium People,” the struggle between the observer and the observed. Ballard makes the point explicit by highlighting the apparatus of a security-obsessed state and juxtaposing it against the growing alienation of the middle class. The insurgents Markham discovers are not members of some angry proletariat; they are middle managers upset over mortgage rates. “Believe me, the next revolution is going to be about parking,” says a university lecturer named Kay Churchill, who seeks to bring the fight to Chelsea Marina, the planned estate in London where she lives.
All this is ripe for satire, and Ballard has a good time exposing the hypocrisies not only of the broader culture but also of his well-heeled revolutionaries. After the residents of Chelsea Marina take over their community, the authorities shut off the utilities. “It’s a little crude but good psychology,” Markham reflects. “No middle-class revolutionary can defend the barricades without a shower and a large cappuccino.”
Still, if that highlights the naiveté of these suburban rebels, Ballard is not satisfied with easy fun. Instead, he moves between humor and an inquiry into the insignificance of contemporary society, where everything has been flattened beneath the blandness of the greater good. “[A] Pret A Manger in the King’s Road, Tate Modern, a Conran restaurant scheduled for the British Museum, the Promenade Concerts, Waterstone’s bookshops,” he writes, “all of them exploiters of middle-class credulity. Their corrupting fantasies had deluded the entire educated caste, providing a dangerous pabulum that had poisoned a spoon-fed intelligentsia. From sandwich to summer school, they were the symbols of subservience and the enemies of freedom.”
Such an insurrection can’t help but take on a life of its own. That’s one of the realities of this novel, which becomes sinister with the introduction of Richard Gould, a pediatrician-turned-revolutionary theorist who longs to bring the system — no, the very universe — down. “We can’t see the road for all the signposts,” he tells Markham. “Let’s clear them away so we can gaze at the mystery of an empty road.”
If Markham is the yang of “Millennium People,” Gould is the yin. And yet, there’s a certain existential purity to his point-of-view. Gould may be villainous, but he is also honest, the only character in the novel willing or able to see what is at stake. “We emerge from the void, stare back at it for a short while, and then rejoin the void,” he explains. “There’s only silence, so we have to speak.”
What Gould is saying is that in a world this over-saturated, where we are overwhelmed by either obligation or distraction, the most essential act is the emptiest, the one that forces us to face that there is nothing behind humanity’s facade. “Not one of the works of art in the gallery,” he says of an attack on the Tate Modern, “remotely matched the limitless potency of a terrorist bomb.” And later: “To keep the world sane we depend on motive, we rely on cause and effect. Kick those props away and we see that the meaningless act is the only one that has any meaning.”
The temptation is to read this as a Don DeLillo-esque meditation on terror, how it destabilizes everything. But with Ballard, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because his contention all along has been that we need to be destabilized. It’s no coincidence that he was fascinated by the Baader-Meinhof Gang, upper-middle-class West Germans who in the 1970s embraced a militant, brutal terrorism. Their rage, and their futility, are the ghosts in the machine of this disturbing and effective novel, in which “[v]iolence, as Richard Gould once said, should always be gratuitous, and no serious revolution should ever achieve its aims.”
By J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $25.95
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