The present has caught up with JG Ballardby Will Self / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Millennium People
Author: JG Ballard
Price: (Flamingo, ?16.99)
Why is JG Ballard rated by many (including myself) as the most significant English novelist of the second half of the 20th century? His fusions of 1920s surrealism, 1960s science fiction and contemporary suburbia can appear not merely dystopian but perverse. His prose, when not clunking along as if daring you to find it prosaic, can veer into imagery at once bluntly technical and comically transcendent: eros and thanatos browning on a gas-fired barbecue. But Ballard’s prose is daring, because it can seem like a form of mass spectrometry, as western society is incinerated to reveal what it is really made of. If you can be bored while love, hate, sensuality and received values flare up, then you are as numb and rudderless as a typical Ballard character.
Ballard’s books are not pretty; nor are they obviously “literary” in that hammy way whereby a writer conveys between the lines that he is exceedingly well read and that you may be as well. Ballard belongs neither to the academy nor to the book group. His characters cry out neither for sympathy nor identification from the reader; they stand in a null moral ground, staring balefully towards a long-suspected future, defined usually by little more than their profession and a few rags of memory.
Ballard is a writer more prized than prizewinning. True, his aficionados have something of the cultish about us, a legacy perhaps of his origins within the SF genre (and those of us over 40 most likely encountered his work first under this guise). But ever since Steven Spielberg filmed Empire of the Sun (an experience of which Ballard himself has remarked laconically “…it lifted my income from that of an English to an American GP”), the mainstream has made its claims on him as well. Sitting in his Shepperton semi, screamingly ordinary (a devoted single father and now a grandfather), Ballard has issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience. Other writers describe; Ballard anticipates. To paraphrase the title of one of his short story collections, he has provided us with our own myths of the near future.
His public pronouncements have been gnomically ambivalent: pro-pornography, pro-sadomasochism, half in love with American braggadocio, half in hate with the sell-by date of technology. In a typically prissy edition of Radio 4’s Book Club, Ballard didn’t demur for a second before his middle-English audience. “I loved the Japanese soldiers,” he said of his time as a child spent in an internment camp outside Shanghai. “There’s nothing more attractive to a boy than the side that’s winning.” Is he satirist or seer? A consummate English ironist or quietly in search of the genuinely irenic?
One thing is certain: his mutant science fictions (explorations of “inner space,” as he once put it) have enabled Ballard to sustain the attack and rigour of the avant garde while all about him have succumbed to the process whereby everything formerly counter-cultural becomes consumable, so long as it has that seductive 99p price point. By anticipating the very form of the death of Diana Spencer (in Crash); the social fallout of postwar urban planning (High-Rise); the impact of global warming (The Drowned World and the short story “The Terminal Beach”), as well as taking sideways trajectories into the surreal (The Atrocity Exhibition and Vermilion Sands) and limning in the society of the spectacle (The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America), Ballard has justified his own adjectival status. To speak of anything from a popular delusion to a deranged political d?marche as “Ballardian” is not merely to pay the writer his due, but to acknowledge the genuinely minatory nature of his vision. Indeed, the time has come to entertain the notion that one of the new seasons we are experiencing-dry spring, warm winter-should be named, simply, “Ballard.”
Over the past 15 years, Ballard has eschewed the valetudinarian poses you might expect from a lesser figure and continued to produce tenderly realised dystopias. In Rushing to Paradise, he devised a neofeminist matriarchy based on a sweltering Pacific atoll, so as to dissect social Darwinism. In Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, he explored the teasing idea that leisured western society contains within itself the seeds of its own violent destruction. Ballard first alighted on the Mediterranean littoral-where these two novels are set-a decade ago in a short story which floated the “what if…” proposition that all northern European tourists in the Med would, at the end of one holiday season, be informed by their families and governments that they should remain there, as they have become surplus to the requirements of the service economy.
The space-timeshare near future of the tourist industry is, of course, now with us. But more germane still is Ballard’s view of affluent bourgeois society as a gated community of the psyche, within which violent outbreaks of the collective id are inevitable and, perhaps, desirable. In Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, these take the form of debauches and crimes orchestrated by the middle-class communards within their own habitat. Now, in what may be seen as the third volume of a putative trilogy, Ballard applies his curious inductive reasoning to the wider society.
Millennium People is both classic Ballard and a new departure. The flashback structure of the novel, whereby the protagonist returns to the scene of a middle-class rebellion at Chelsea Marina (a particularly ugly yet fashionable London housing development of late 1980s vintage), recalls both High-Rise and Crash. With this narrative prolepsis, Ballard lassoes the future, even as Millennium People remains set in the recent past.
Like his 1988 novella Running Wild, Millennium People sets up the proposition that the English bourgeoisie’s comfort zone is anything but. In the earlier novella, the children of an affluent community in the M4 corridor perform a Hungerford-style massacre of their parents, before going underground and attempting to assassinate a thinly-veiled Margaret Thatcher. In the new book it is the entire community who take up arms under the influence of a nihilistic paediatrician, Dr Richard Gould. Hemmed in by rising service charges, their own consumer debt and the tyranny of parking controls, they burn their own Volvos and Audis, push them into barricades and perform sensitive acts of cultural terrorism: attacking the NFT, Tate Modern, the BBC and other high cultural targets.
As in earlier novels, Ballard’s characters are emblematic as much as human. The main protagonist, David Markham (yet another of his central casting psychologists) is drawn into the Chelsea Marina rebellion on a false pretext-the search for the assassins of his first wife, Laura, who has been killed by a terrorist bomb placed on a baggage carousel at Heathrow. However, unlike earlier Ballard straight guys, Markham is provided with a proper back story (his mother was a friend of RD Laing), as well as a near-convincing emotional life. Nevertheless, there is still the obligatory mutilation of the object of desire (Markham’s second wife, Sally, has been put on crutches by a runaway Portuguese tram) and the Readers’ Wives psychology of Ballardian adultery: while Sally undertakes an affair with Markham’s colleague and his ex-wife’s consort, Henry Kendall, Markham shares Kay Churchill, a lecturer in film studies and the titular leader of the rebellion, with the shadowy Richard Gould.
For Ballard, infidelity is a defining act of love and, by the same token, the move to understand and even embrace nihilism is the standard of true belief. Gould, like Vaughan in Crash before him and numerous other Ballardian hierophants “…came into our lives like a figure from one of tomorrow’s dreams, a stranger who took for granted we would become his most devoted disciples.” Gould is the Bakunin who lurks behind Kay Churchill’s Kropotkin. He is the physical force of middle-class revolution, while she merely mouths the slogans and strikes the attitudes.
Alongside Gould and Churchill there are other old stagers. Stephen Dexter, a disgraced priest winnowed out by the torture of Philippine guerrillas, is the lineal descendant of all Ballard’s doomed young airmen, condemned forever by their annihilation in the second world war to wander the pages of his fiction. Yet what Ballard does with these hieratic figures in Millennium People is something new. The real job of the class system, Kay Churchill tells Markham, “isn’t to suppress the proles, but to keep the middle classes down, make sure they’re docile and subservient.” The logical conclusion of this-that the middle class must be roused out of its conformist stupor by attacking its own cultural shibboleths-is detailed with loving silliness.
From the endless harping on about parking charges and school fees, to the firebombing of the NFT, to the very 18th Brumaire of the entire rebellion-the middle-class proles draw the line when Kay Churchill tries to rename the streets of Chelsea Marina after Japanese film directors, arguing that this will trigger a decline in property values-there is the delicious sensation of Ballard taking the piss. In the past, he has always maintained that humour is something he doesn’t really do, but in Millennium People, along with a more emotional Ballard, we have a wittier one.
By taking the neocon British pundits-the Simon Heffers, Michael Goves and Melanie Phillipses-on their own terms, Ballard shows them the logical conclusion of their deranged sense of entitlement: if you think the middle classes are the downtrodden, here’s how to rouse them from their apathy. Interrupt The World at One! Crap on The Moral Maze! And entwined with this satirical skein, there is the darker thread spun by Richard Gould, who is involved in the murder of a television presenter, though he has never seen her on screen and can’t remember her name. Still, Markham notes, “her death on her own doorstep prompted an outpouring of grief that reminded me of Princess Diana.” With the true nihilism born of being a bien pensant, Gould knows he must act in order to confirm his thesis: “The middle-class protest is part of a much larger movement, a current running through all our lives, though most people don’t realise it. There’s a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better. People know their lives are pointless, and they realise there’s nothing they can do about it. Or almost nothing.”
Millennium People is the novel that fin-de-si?cle metropolitan England was waiting for. And now, like a Connex commuter train running slowly on heat-buckled rails, it has at last arrived.