Thursday, August 7, 2008
by J.G. Ballard
Despite the exotic premises and nightmare circumstances replete throughout J.G. Ballard’s novels, each one is at its heart primarily concerned with very familiar issues of middle-class existence. Of course, Ballard’s conclusions regarding the middle class reflect the outlook of a perennial outsider – the perspective of a dystopian optimist, dreaming of a nightmare. The middle class terrain is herein defamiliarized, a landscape whose chief danger barring survival is boredom. Ballard’s novels always follow a male protagonist who is making the transformation from an insider to an outsider. These men are either doctors, as in “The Crystal World,” artists and intellectuals in “Vermillion Sands,” or psychologists, such as David Markham of Ballard’s 2003 novel, “Millennium People.”
In this late-period novel by Ballard, rising service fees, tuitions and bills lead to a revolt amongst the professors, doctors and small-business owners who live at the Chelsea Marina, a posh mid-income housing complex. The emaciated doctor, Richard Gould, is orchestrating this bourgeois revolution, espousing that “The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.” Ballard, as always, manages to throw out ideas both tongue-in-cheek and thought provoking. Even though he seems to be questioning the very worth of “ideas” in a terrain that defamiliarizes and destabilizes “idealism,” he is still thankfully full of good ones. The extremity of his statements throw light on extreme situations.
It is exactly such boldness and disregard for political correctness that positions “Millennium People” as one of the few post-9/11 statements I’ve read worth any consideration. Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” struck me as a weak effort by that New York-based novelist, with none of the caustic wit and above-mentioned “dystopian optimism” displayed in Ballard. If “White Noise’s” climactic scene of motorists paused to appreciate the post-nuclear sunset isn’t a form of dystopian optimism, I don’t know what is! That sharpness, sadly, was lacking from “Falling Man,” as if DeLillo was too bashful to attack the post-9/11 world with any real fierceness. “Millennium People,” on the other hand, maintains Ballard’s peculiarly nihilist worldview and is filled with wonderfully acidic satirical moments, like a protest demonstration at a cat show that ends with Markham receiving his most serious injury of the book. It’s amusing though, to note that while Susan Sontag and Karlheinz Stockhausen were criticized for intellectual statements regarding 9/11 that veered from the norm of sentimentalism, Ballard’s seem to have gone unnoticed, even though he states that “The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the Twentieth Century.” To break America free from the nightmare of history, of time.
Okay, so once again Ballard is talking about time. The focus in “Millennium People” upon a bored middle class allows Ballard ample opportunity to once again investigate a timeless landscape, as the middle class of the novel, in their boredom, are in a way without time. Arthur Schopenhauer says “…boredom is direct proof that existence is itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.” So the key concepts here are time and value. The two are bound together. In many of Ballard’s novels, there is a transcendental push to abolish time. Value, though is a worth tied into time. Without time, there can be no value. Richard Gould is the fanatical guru in “Millennium People,” a role previously occupied by Vaughn in “Crash,” amongst others. Gould insists that since existence is meaningless, than only meaningless acts bestow any value to life. The most potent meaningless act is a violent one, and “…nothing brings out violence like a peaceful demonstration.” Gould whips the residents of the Chelsea Marina into a frenzy through his “Joan of Arc,” former Film Studies professor, Kay Churchill. The demonstrations and political acts of Kay Churchill are still too closely tethered to middle class civilities for Gould, and the only truly transcendent act for him is the meaninglessly violent once, such as attacking an airport, which is “…a huge illusion, the centre of a world of signs that pointed to nothing.” Gould, of course, is attacking the entire system of signs and signifiers.
J.G. Ballard’s prose is awash in signs. His earlier prose often contained disparate similes that would propel the sentence from the narrative to the semiotic. The syntax of these similes was replete with hieroglyphics, omens, and symbols – with signs. By the late period of “Millennium People,” Ballard has mostly dispensed with the simile and when he writes such digressions in the novel, he usually does so without a linking work such as “like.” Ballard’s text is still a text of signs, but it is a far more precarious one, because “Appearances proved nothing and everything.” A statement, though one made by the third-person narration, by “Ballard” as author, that would still be rather fitting if it were to come from Gould. It is Gould, after all, who finally meets his end in a manner similar to Vaughn’s in “Crash,” and it is Gould who attaches meaningless signs to a meaningless existence. Yes, Gould is Markham’s guru, but unlike earlier Ballard gurus, he proves to be far more fallible, as if Ballard is telling us that the idea of a messianic conduit to a greater transcendental reality is bunk, as illogical and unrealistic as any new age promise.
“Millennium People,” is, of course, a post-9/11 novel, that is, it is a novel of a period in which the Marxists’ “late-capitalism” has turning into “even more capitalism,” and where terrorism has lost its idealistic and socialist luster. The transcendentalism of earlier Ballard novels like “The Crystal World” or “The Drowned World” does not figure into this book. Look at the fate of Kay Churchill, who has “…secured a large advance for her book-of-the-revolution, and… went on to become a successful columnist and TV pundit.” A TV pundit? Therefore, Kay replaces the anchorwoman shot by Richard Gould; it is as if the violent acts of the middle-class revolution never occurred. Markham often looks out the window of his St John’s Wood residence and sees “The tourists and Beatles fans [haunt] the Abbey Road, and drivers [hunt] for parking spaces.” The idealism and middle class revolt of the sixties finds its logical terminal point in “Millennium People”- tourism and parking.
What exactly is the revolution in “Millennium People” for? Is it for happiness? Well, no, because the residents of the Chelsea Marina seem “happy” enough with their security and jobs. The revolution isn’t so much “for” anything, as it is “against” something. The ideal of happiness has proved to be a faulty one . As one character says: “Happiness? I like the idea, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.”