THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A brutal, nihilistic, baffling mystery amid class warfare

By Steve Almond
August 28, 2011

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The late J.G. Ballard, author of 19 novels and countless short stories, is one of the few contemporary writers to have earned his own adjective. “Ballardian,’’ according to the Collins English Dictionary, describes the sort of “dystopian modernity’’ and “bleak man-made landscapes’’ in which the British writer specialized.

“Millennium People,’’ originally published in 2003 and now being released here, will not disappoint. The novel is relentlessly, at times oppressively, Ballardian.

Our protagonist David Markham, a psychologist specializing in “the mental problems of middle managers’’ is jolted from his comfortable existence by an airport bombing that kills his ex-wife. In an effort to track down the killers, Markham infiltrates a group of self-styled revolutionaries operating out of Chelsea Marina, a posh London enclave.

The rebels, led by a charismatic and mentally unstable pediatrician, hope to incite the mortgage class to revolt against their self-imposed civic obedience through a series of increasingly outlandish terrorist actions. Before long, Markham has left his second wife, moved into Chelsea Marina, and thrown himself headlong into the movement.

Ballard’s preferred terrain, as a science fiction writer, was the post-apocalyptic dystopia. This time out, there’s no need for a cataclysm. His vision of modern consumer culture could hardly be bleaker. He paints a world so devoid of feeling that average citizens torch their homes simply to feel alive. This is the sort of book in which characters say things such as, “‘Happiness? I like the idea, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.’’’

Ballard is at his best when his characters resist this sort of easy cynicism. Here, for instance, is how Markham reacts as he’s leaving his ex-wife’s memorial service: “Wisps of smoke rose from the crematorium chimney while the combustion chamber warmed to its fiercest temperature. There was a puff of darker smoke, as if part of Laura had freed itself from the drag-anchor of her body - perhaps a hand that had once caressed me, or the soft foot that would touch mine while she slept.’’

Sadly, the lyric beauty of this passage, the depth of emotion it conveys, is absent from the rest of “Millennium People.’’ What we get instead is a police procedural spiked with bouts of dogma. Ballard’s characters don’t interact. They swap cultural diagnoses. It’s like listening to a gang of hyperarticulate college sophomores.

“ ‘There’s a deep need for meaningless action,’ ’’ the rebel leader assures Markham, “ ‘the more violent the better. People know their lives are pointless, and they realize there’s nothing they can do about it. Or almost nothing.’ ’’

It seems never to have occurred to anyone in this book that one might find fulfillment in, for instance, political activism or philanthropy, or the nurturing of children.

Instead, they blow up museums and theaters and sound a drumbeat of nihilism. It’s a world in which anything might happen because nobody cares about anyone else.

Ballard always has displayed a keen eye for the pathologies of modern life. “Fame and celebrity were again on trial,’’ he writes, after the assassination of a news anchor, “as if being famous was itself an incitement to anger and revenge, playing on the uneasy dreams of a submerged world, a dark iceberg of impotence and hostility.’’

Still, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that he’s going after some pretty low-hanging fruit. The suburban bourgeoisie have been a dependable literary punching bag since long before Richard Yates laid bare their delusions in “Revolutionary Road.’’

What keeps “Millennium People’’ humming along, amid all its psychobabble, is the central mystery: Who, ultimately, was responsible for the death of Markham’s ex? Ballard assembles a curious cast of suspects and keeps the reader guessing, right to the end.

The reader is asked to accept that security officials - in the face of the 9/11 attacks and the longer history of violence by the Irish Republican Army - would turn a blind eye to Markham’s crimes. But plausibility is the least of Ballard’s problems.

For all the smug proclamations issued by his characters, he’s never able to provide a convincing explanation for why a bunch of lawyers and doctors would take up Molotov cocktails, as opposed to, say, yoga or volunteerism.

Even more baffling are the ostensible goals of this ad hoc revolution. If he has any information on this matter, the author does not share it. The idea seems to be that the middle class will throw off its gilded chains of oppression and figure out the rest later.

Of one ringleader, Ballard observes: “Wherever there was a private school or a snow-white lavatory bowl, a Gilbert and Sullivan performance or a well-loved old Bentley, the spectre of Kay Churchill would lighten the darkness, hope springing from her raised middle finger.’’

This riff, a mocking rewrite of Tom Joad’s impassioned speech at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath,’’ epitomizes the condescension of “Millennium People.’’ The joke here is on anyone who seeks to transform themselves or their world for the better. It’s not especially funny, though it is abundantly cruel.

Lookout Press will publish Steve Almond’s new story collection, “God Bless America,’’ in October. He can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net.

MILLENNIUM PEOPLE by J. G. Ballard

Norton, 288 pp. $25.95