Monday, September 24, 2012

the last book I read

Millennium People by J.G. Ballard.

David Markham is a psychologist (a typically Ballardian occupation) all set to jet off to America on a conference when a bomb goes off at Heathrow Airport, killing three people, including, it later transpires, Markham's ex-wife, Laura. Markham's current wife, Sally, persuades him to investigate the incident as a way of exorcising his remaining feelings for Laura (who ran off with one of Markham's work colleagues).

Markham's investigations lead him to a group of middle-class revolutionaries in the gated community of Chelsea Marina - radical paediatrician Richard Gould, priest Stephen Dexter and sexy but brittle Kay Churchill. Their activities range from silly stunts to actual destruction of property, from smoke-bombing a branch of Blockbuster to burning down the National Film Theatre.

But what are they rebelling against? It seems the middle-class are the new working-class - mortgaged to the hilt, school fees to pay, payments to keep up on the BMW, holidays in Provence, all of which leaves precious little for day-to-day living. Yes, they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it any more.

But it's not all Adam and Jocasta tying their pashminas to the wing mirrors of their Volvo estates and driving around throwing leftover lentil couscous at the police - there are more sinister undercurrents at work, inspired by Richard Gould and Stephen Dexter and culminating in the bombing of Tate Modern, causing more deaths, and then the doorstep execution of a blandly anonymous but popular (and coyly never named) female television presenter. Menwhile the residents' protests (led by Kay Churchill, who David Markham has started a relationship with) culminate in a pitched battle with the police, who eventually withdraw and leave the residents to their own burning houses.

But what has been achieved? The residents of Chelsea Marina who had left gradually drift back and things return to normal. Not for Richard Gould, though, who has greater things on his mind, specifically assassinating the Home Secretary who is doing a post-riot visit to Chelsea Marina. Largely by accident Markham foils this, allowing the lurking police marksmen to give Gould a hot lead sandwich and acquiring a small degree of heroic status for himself into the bargain as he returns to leafy suburbia with Sally.

I remember saying back when Ballard died in 2009 that he'd spent the last decade or so of his life essentially rewriting the same novel several times; certainly the sequence that goes Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdom Come (his last published novel) all share a number of themes: boredom, urban alienation, technology as a means of enslavement rather than liberation, the gradual flattening out and deadening of emotion (what Ballard rather grandly called "the death of affect") and the associated need for people to re-assert their humanity through acts of increasing perversity and violence. Millennium People scores over its two predecessors by being located in a more recognisable setting (the previous two being set in Spain and France respectively) but loses out by virtue of the central plot being less convincing - the violence and depravity in the previous two books had a genuine edge of danger to it, but the middle-class revolt here just seems a bit silly, Richard Gould's psychotic urges aside. There's a bit of other sneaky working in of references from earlier works as well - Markham's wife Sally's fetishistic use of her crutches, despite the injuries she sustained in a tram accident in Portugal having long since healed, echoes the various bizarre episodes with surgical harnesses and calipers in Crash, still Ballard's most notorious work.

Crash is still the book you want, to be honest; I would suggest also that unless you're an obsessive completist you probably only want one of the late-period foursome mentioned above, and as entertaining as it is Millennium People probably isn't it - I would go for Super-Cannes if I were you. Ballard's writing style remains completely inimitable - the obsessive re-use of certain words ("matrix", "stylized", "psychopathology"), the public school/RAF habit all the male characters have of addressing each other by their surnames, the general sense that real human beings don't behave anything like this, the bracing moral and sexual perversity.

I stand by my earlier assertion that Ballard is a writer probably best served by the short-story format, though, so in addition to Crash, Super-Cannes and the weird Heart Of Darkness-esque fable The Day Of Creation you need to have the two collected volumes, as well as the frankly uncategorisable The Atrocity Exhibition. That should do you to be going on with.

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