On the Barricades with the Bourgeoisie
By J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton, 2011
Two years after his death, the great provocateur J.G. Ballard is still energetically unsettling the complacent assumptions
of contemporary consumer society. Millennium People, his penultimate novel, is now being published in the U.S. for the first time, eight years after it first appeared in the U.K. (His
last novel, Kingdom Come, still awaits its U.S. release.) This drawn-out delay, strange in the case of such a well-known author, suggests that there is much that remains disquieting about Ballard’s work, long after his most notorious novel, Crash, first appeared in 1973. The arrival of Millennium People in the guise of a posthumous discovery is a good opportunity to investigate his lesser-known late period, and how its obsessive themes relate to the more celebrated phases of his career.
Ballard emerged in the early 1960s as a science fiction novelist specializing in apocalyptic visions, but crossed over at the end of that decade to a dystopian present. With the same insight as Jean-Luc Godard in his 1965 film Alphaville, Ballard showed that he could dispense with sci-fi’s traditional paraphernalia of futurology while sharpening the genre’s defining perspective of deep alienation: the modern-day city, with its Brutalist high-rise buildings, proliferating freeway networks and sprawling airports, had become a brave new world in its own right.
In Crash, Ballard pursued this idea of the alienating urban environment with the utmost intensity. Influenced by the work of William S. Burroughs, this classic cult novel steeped in drugs, sex and violence flaunts an elegant schizoid style, swerving from a coolly ironic technical discourse of anatomical and automotive terminology to a hallucinatory language of ritual incantation and prophecy: “some kind of key could be found to this coming autogeddon…conjunctions between elbow and chromium window-sill, vulva and instrument binnacle, summed up the possibilities of a new logic…the codes of a new marriage of sensation and possibility.” Like its antihero, Dr. Robert Vaughan, a burned-out “TV scientist” obsessively plotting a suicidal crash with Elizabeth Taylor, the book reeks of a strange blend of “semen and engine coolant.” Having previously staged a conceptual art installation of “Crashed Cars” at a London gallery, Ballard developed his theme with all the monomaniacal conviction of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork. Crash, with its insistent leitmotif of an eroticized death drive, recalls Tristan und Isolde, as the narrator, a director of television commercials named James Ballard, finds himself seduced into joining Vaughan’s search for meaning through self-destruction.
In the next stage of his career, Ballard adopted a frankly autobiographical, and ultimately more humanist approach, for the diptych of Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991). Empire of the Sun recounts his childhood in Shanghai and internment in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II, rendering this grim material into a boy’s adventure worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson. (And in the same ambivalent way that Jim Hawkins’s allegiance swings between the pirates and the honest men in Treasure Island, young Jim Ballard feels sympathy and admiration for both the Japanese who imprison him and the Americans who liberate him with their atomic bombs.) In The Kindness of Women, his most emotionally engaged novel, Ballard reworks the background of both Empire of the Sun and Crash, revealing how he spent his adulthood searching for a way to come to grips with his wartime memories. Haunted by “the flash of the Nagasaki bomb,” he rode the “insane roller-coaster” of the 1960s counterculture even as he raised his three young children after his wife’s death.
In his last novels, Ballard returned to the dystopian themes of the 1970s, but softened their edges with the sobered and matured perspective of his autobiographical period. As in Crash, the narrators of these novels are vulnerable to seduction by charismatic psychopaths who preach a doctrine of freedom and self-fulfillment through violence. But they are also aging, prone to nostalgia for lost youth, and attached to the liberal values and material ease of the Western European middle-class lifestyle. This tension between the competing temptations of visionary extremism and bourgeois comfort is at the heart of Ballard’s late period, although the dialectical struggle is always relieved by unsurpassed irony, witty dialogue and an occasional brisk action sequence.
Millennium People confronts the loaded issues of terrorism and senseless violence, treating these themes with characteristic Ballardian ambiguity and provocation. One might assume that American publishers shied away from taking responsibility for a such a book in the inflamed years immediately following 9/11. However, Ballard is interested not in Islamic terrorism but in the unlikely and inherently comical idea of a middle-class revolution.The narrator of Millennium People is David Markham, an industrial psychologist who advises big companies on “the emotional life of the office,” even while hauling his own heavy emotional baggage. His second wife believes herself to have been disabled by an accident, but her condition appears to be psychosomatic. In an echo of Crash and its perverse fetishization of accident injuries, Markham has designed special manual driving controls for her Saab. He admits, “In many ways, my life was as deformed as this car,” which seems to symbolize his resigned acceptance of the mutual dependencies of their domestic life in the upscale London district of St. John’s Wood, subsidized by her wealthy father. But then Markham’s stasis is shattered by the death of his first wife in a bombing at Heathrow Airport. No group takes responsibility for the attack, but an anti-tourism message is found near the scene. He decides to investigate on his own, infiltrating the radical fringe of the activist community. He observes in this militant milieu an inchoate longing for meaning, under the cover of altruistic causes:
At times, as I joined a demonstration against animal experiments or Third-World debt, I sensed that a primitive religion was being born, a faith in search of a god to worship. Congregations roamed the streets, hungry for a charismatic figure who would emerge sooner or later from the wilderness of a suburban shopping mall and scent a promising wind of passion and credulity.
He soon falls in with a cell of radicals fomenting a revolt in a middle-class London housing development called Chelsea Marina. Its residents, well-educated professionals, are fed up with the financial pressures of mortgages, private school fees and the myriad other costs of maintaining their accustomed standard of living, which they complain have reduced them to the condition of a new proletariat. The radicals escalate their provocations with a series of attacks targeting cultural monuments such as the Tate Modern art museum, BBC headquarters and even the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, icons they revile as “exploiters of middle-class credulity” whose “corrupting fantasies had deluded the entire educated caste.” They declare their ultimate nemesis to be the 20th Century itself. Despite his skepticism at such sweeping pronouncements, Markham becomes increasingly complicit in the violence, and realizes, “My quest for Laura’s murderer was a search for a more intense and driven existence. Somewhere in my mind a part of me had helped to plant the Heathrow bomb.”
This scenario is typical of Ballard’s late novels. The two that preceded Millennium People, Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), are also set in motion by crimes that prompt their easygoing narrators to become amateur detectives. Each of these narrators is lured away from bourgeois security and self-restraint, tempted by the amoral creed of the suspects he pursues. The formulaic appearance of these novels is deceptive: the familiar conventions of detective fiction conceal a persistent inquiry into the state of millennial society, a series of sociological experiments conducted in symbolic sites of Western European prosperity. In Cocaine Nights, the setting is Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast, the Costa del Sol, and the retirement and vacation complexes that crowd its shore. In this torpid wasteland of “a billion balconies facing the sun,” a charismatic tennis pro incites the residents to dabble in crime to conquer their terminal boredom. In Super-Cannes, the scene shifts to a cutting-edge office park on the French Riviera, “an ideas laboratory for the new millennium.” Rather than a surfeit of leisure, the problem becomes an excess of work, but the visionary staff psychiatrist has a similar prescription: a program of “therapeutic psychopathy” to reinvigorate exhausted executives.
Each of these detective novels of course comes equipped with a femme fatale. In Millennium People, this role is played by Kay Churchill, a film studies lecturer and bohemian rabble rouser plotting the revolt at Chelsea Marina “over endless bottles of Bulgarian wine.” Markham moves into her house, becoming her tenant and lover, caught up in her spirited campaign against the eternal verities of bourgeois culture. Yet he remains a detached observer, constantly ironizing the tasteful incongruities of the uprising. He mocks the protest banners made from “sheets of best Egyptian cotton,” Molotov cocktails concocted in Burgundy bottles stuffed with neckties, and the strains of the prisoner’s chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco played on a stereo as the residents man their barricades against the riot police—an allusion, perhaps to the doomed middle-class revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. But the residents are serious enough to stop paying off their mortgages—a prescient touch by Ballard, anticipating the recent real estate crash by several years—and eventually, in a quixotic gesture of defiance, they abandon their homes and abdicate the civic responsibilities of their class, driving off in a caravan for a long holiday from history.
Markham soon recognizes that Kay is a romantic revolutionary of the old school, enamored of lost causes and grand but futile gestures. The genuinely dangerous figure in her conspiratorial cell is a spectral young pediatrician, Richard Gould, a fanatic believer in senseless violence as the only serious means of exposing the senselessness of the social order. In their first meeting, Markham, injured in a violent demonstration at a cat show, is only vaguely aware of the doctor giving him a painkiller injection, but has an uncanny presentiment of their intimate attachment: “I sensed a fleshless body anchored to me like an incubus.” Later he is struck by the doctor’s appearance, repeatedly describing him as if already dead: Gould is “tubercularly pale,” constantly rubbing his “toneless cheeks,” trying to restore some color to his flesh. At one fraught moment, “All the bones in his face had come forward, their sharp ridges cutting against the transparent skin, as if his skull was desperate for the light.” Like Vaughan in Crash, Gould seems to be disintegrating under the pressure of his obsessions.
Despite all these ominous signs, Markham says, Gould “ensnared me in his bizarre world, drawing me into his fragmentary personality, almost offering himself as a kit from which I could construct a vital figure missing from my life.” Kay tries to warn Markham to stay away from Gould and resist his dangerous attraction, as does another member of the cell, who tells him, “Social unrest always throws up a few really dangerous types. People who use extreme violence to explore themselves, like some people use extreme sex.” The link between those two extremes is a recurring theme in Ballard’s novels. When Kay and Markham spend the night together after the Tate Modern bombing, which kills three people, she notes that he was aroused by the violence: “You had the best sex in your life…You wanted to bugger me, and beat me…The meaningless violence—it excited you.”
In a conversation with Markham, Gould says, “We need to pick
targets that don’t make sense,” a dictum reminiscent of the
deliberately absurd attempted bombing of London’s Greenwich Observatory in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), whose mastermind Mr. Vladimir says, “The attack must have all the
shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.” But Gould’s
aim goes far beyond a merely gratuitous outrage; he expounds a veritable metaphysics of terrorism. Markham becomes his acolyte: denying that the doctor is a nihilist, he insists, “It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning.” And at the end of the story, Markham still believes in him: “In his despairing and psychotic way, Gould’s motives were honourable. He was trying to find meaning
in the most meaningless times…”
Explaining his theory of middle-class quiescence, Gould says, “We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive.” Markham’s reckless susceptibility demonstrates the truth of that proposition in an ironic way. His relaxed tolerance goes so far as to entertain Gould’s mad arguments, allowing him to contemplate violence as an extreme form of spiritual self-realization, a short-cut to an illusory freedom, while his passivity makes him Gould’s accomplice and dupe. But his credulity cuts both ways: he lets slip at the very beginning that all along he was an unwitting “police spy—a deception I was the last to discover.” Here again is that ambiguity of allegiance, that fundamental confusion of identity whose origin can be traced back to young Jim’s experiences at the Japanese prison camp in Empire of the Sun.
One of the pleasures of reading a late work by a great author is the recognition of such signature traces, and their evolution into new patterns and combinations. Ballard’s prose in Millennium People lacks the unrelenting existential tension that made it such an elegant instrument of tempered steel in his earlier, more extreme decades. Still, there is an intermittent flaring up of the old vicious wit and taste for the perverse, or the occasional dark bass note sounded in the oracular voice of the science fiction seer, though a wink of self-parody is at times discernible. The literary scholar Edward Said, following the ideas of the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conceived of “late style” in its quintessence, for example in the dissonant last works of Beethoven, as a rebarbative, uncompromising form of negative beauty. But with Ballard the opposite holds true: his late style is relaxed, amiable and avuncular, slumming casually in the detective genre. Yet this comfortably worn surface makes the contrast all the more disquietingly effective when the reader is steadily drawn into the shadows of moral ambiguity.
Ballard’s scenarios may have the exaggerated dimensions of sublimated science fiction, yet the 20th Century his revolutionaries rail against is a reminder of how thin the veneer of civilization can be. A revolt of the bourgeoisie sounds absurd, until we recognize that Chelsea Marina has certain parallels with the Weimar Republic, another promising social experiment of progressive values and cultural aspiration whose civic foundations proved dangerously fragile. The economic unrest in today’s Europe has once again brought the middle class out into the streets, to the barricades in the very shadow of the Parthenon—perhaps the ideal target for Ballard’s iconoclastic conspirators. One can only hope the new masses will not find a messianic figure waiting to lead them towards the aphrodisiac temptations of mere anarchy.
Joshua Lustig is a senior editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York.