Harper Collins/Flamingo 2003
Decades ago I wrote to Mr Ballard, to pay my respects to his work, perhaps in the hope of accessing some hermetic wisdom from the Prospero of the Concrete Island. In his reply - courteous, urbane, by return of post - he stressed the importance of chasing one's primal inspirations and waiting for the world to catch up in its own time.
The post-millenial world has just about caught up with Ballard, via the trajectories he's charted so obsessively. Like a statue in a twilit De Chirico colonnade, he casts a long shadow. Global eco-mutations (The Drowned World, The Drought) are transforming the biosphere, while private cranial spaces become colonial zones, malls of the hyper-lit (and now hyper-linked) media landscape mapped in The Atrocity Exhibition."Sex multiplied by Technology equals the Future," said Ballard, apropos of Crash, in the days when publishers' readers thought he was "beyond psychiatric help" and no-one had yet fantasised about hard-core live webcams.
Now - especially after the mainstream success of the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun - he's sought out by the UK broadsheets as a cultural commentator. He's become the Sage of Shepperton, who might offer us an authoritative deconstruction of our lurid dystopia, apparently conjured up by his fictions....
And this, according to Iain Sinclair, in a recent BBC Radio 3 Ballard feature, could be a problem. We've broken through into the future and his depiction of the scenery has been remarkably prescient. Has he effectively painted himself into a corner where there's no way forward, no new territory to map? Although the Euro-thrillers Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes were generally well received in the UK, a few readers missed the apocalyptic glare that had illuminated the short stories and the disaster novels.
Millennium People doesn't attempt to torque the infrastructure of space-time, in the speculative mode of The Crystal World or The Voices of Time. But it represents a further development of Ballard's preoccupations with survival, our biological inheritance and the fragility of social infrastructures. "As animals... we live on a very dangerous planet," said Ballard's old companion, the late Dr Christopher Evans, media psychologist and (greatly fabulated) protagonist of Crash. Millennium People examines how the compulsion to live dangerously is deep-coded into the human psyche - a perennial Ballard theme - but the author gives it an new urgency by putting London's educated liberal middle classes at the centre of the resulting social implosion. His millenic revolutionary zealots are bank managers, barristers, media studies lecturers and TV producers, eagerly dismantling the spectacle of their overworked consumerist lifestyles. He is, in effect, depicting his target readership in the throes of committing cultural self-immolation.
Dr Robert Markham, a psychologist attached to the Adler Institute, consultant to major corporate clients, is tasked by a Home Office contact to infiltrate a subversive residents' association at Chelsea Marina, a middle-class gated community (modelled on London's up-market Chelsea Harbour enclave). There appears to be an ongoing outbreak of discontent - initially over parking arrangements and maintenance charges - leading to street disorder and violent confrontations with the police. It seems to be part of a pattern of local unrest - the torching of suburban video shops and travel agents, presumably targeted as sales points for the delusive seductions of global capitalism. Is the capital seeing the return of the Angry Brigade, a neo-Situationist crusade or a peculiarly British Baader-Meinhoff Faction?
Markham's mission is also a personal quest - his ex-wife Laura has been just been killed by a mysterious bomb on the luggage carousel at Heathrow. He witnesses the aftermath on TV. With his second marriage drifting towards a comfortable but empty limbo, Markham feels compelled to search for some meaning or purpose in this random annhilation of a human life, and the gratuitous acts of violence that surround it.
Soon Markham is deeply involved as a double-agent. After he's arrested at an animal rights demo Kay Churchhill, the strident film studies lecturer who has been the public face of the Chelsea Marina disturbances becomes his lover. Markham is sent on special assignments, using incendiary devices concocted by Vera Blackburn, MOD science officer. The movement, fissile and assymetric in its operations as any cluster of global terrorists, attacks on all fronts, progressing from trashing video shops to the destruction of the National Film Theatre and a mass siege of the newsroom at Broadcasting House. Slash and burn the media landscape... A glamorous blonde TV presenter ( based on the late Jill Dando) is mysteriously murdered. There's a suicide bomb in the book shop at the new Tate Gallery. The heavily mortgaged home-owners of Chelsea Marina start burning down their houses.
Ballard deep-focusses these episodes against a sharply defined mise-en-scene of twenty-first century London life. The urban middle classes are indeed burnt out - by overwork, by colossal debt, by an overload of conflicting responsibilities and consumerist lusts, by overstretched self-expectations, by imagistic overdose . The Pol Pot rhetoric of Kay and her companions at the NFT appears to offer a millenic year-zero solution to this new proletariat, who have been rehearsing for their uprising ever since the protest movements of the sixties.
As Markham negotiates the ever-mutating rivalries and betrayals of the key players he tries to analyse the individual pathologies underlying these revolutionary committments. One ambiguous (and typically Ballardian figure) is the Reverend Stephen Dexter, post-Christian motorcycling vicar. The one-time missionary is stilll living out the trauma of his torture by guerillas after his light aircraft crashed in the Philippines.
However the prime mover in this universe of perverse possibility is the renegade paediatrician, Dr. Richard Gould. In my failing memory cells (an inner-city schools awards day, 1980s?) this "slim agile man with a strong forehead and bony almost emaciated face" bears at least an ID-parade resemblance to the distinguished paediatrician Dr. Martin Bax, editor of Ambit and long-time associate of Ballard. The author has pointed out that this isn't his intention. And, of course, the doctor-figure - the sinister Dr. Nathan in Atrocity Exhibition, the heroic Dr. Ransome in Empire of the Sun - is a recurrent Ballard archetype.
Gould is heroically dedicated to the care of severely brain-damaged children. He functions at the fringes of the medical system, in Third World conditions, running a covert care operation single handed from a derelict mental hospital which is about to be re-developed as a luxury housing complex. (This Blairite craze for the asset-stripping of Bedlam has been documented in Iain Sinclair's recent travelogue London Orbital and can even be witnessed here in sleepy Hereford). Gould regards his brain-damaged waifs as a mirror-reversal of the urban bourgeoisie, who have been protected for so long from the realities of existence by the extended neoteny of the Welfare State - and are now dazed and brutalised by the excesses of global media and the treadmill of consumerism. His drastic cure for middle-class anomie is a kind of dada nihilismus survivalism.
As in all Ballard's work, there's an eerie disjunction between the convulsive events of the narrative and the composure of his distinctive stylistic voice, those elegant rhythms of complex subordinate clauses and adverbial phrases. Iain Sinclair has commented on Ballard's background as a medical student and technical writer, relating this to the clinical precision of his prose. But his cinematic eye plays an equally important part, steadily panning across his terminal zones like a surveillance camera. In his very early disaster novel, The Wind from Nowhere, no longer part of the official canon, there's an unsettling scene where civil servants huddle in a subterranean bunker, watching a grainy CCTV image from a remote camera. Refugees emerge from a flooded London tube station only to be blown away by the 500 mph cyclone. There's the same sense of dream-like disorientation throughout this book - perhaps reinforced for those like myself who grew up and worked in the London that Ballard so vividly disrupts.
The characteristic Ballard iconography also continues to expand and multiply. A typical image from Millennium People, like the disabled-driver controls of a wrecked Saab (belonging to Markham's invalid wife) refers back to the twisted instrument panels of Crash and the cockpits of derelict Zero fighters in Empire of the Sun.
The millennial rebellion eventually collapses and quickly becomes another media news myth. But it would be a mistake to read the book as a straighforward political satire or conventional social novel. Ballard's concern is less with ideology amd more with the mysterious biology of consciousness that drives human beings to extreme experience. It's an obsession that's going to keep driving him for quite a while yet.
©Paul A Green 9/2003
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