A social satirist who often adopted the guise of a science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard wrote the sort of books Kurt Vonnegut would have written if Vonnegut had not been such a nice guy: grim, mordant, at times scathingly brutal parables that seemed to predict, and at times celebrate, the inevitable decline and fall of Western civilization.
“Millennium People,” one of the late British author’s final novels, is very much in this vein. Published in the author’s homeland in 2004 but only now appearing in the United States, it takes place against the background of a revolt perpetrated by Britain’s middle class. A formerly secure and comfortable crust of responsible citizens develops a sudden taste for demonstrations and rallies, for clashing with police, for flipping and setting fire to the Volvos they used to polish and cherish. Our protagonist and tour guide through this tumultuous Britain is David Markham, who becomes obsessed with terrorists and their activities after his ex-wife, Laura, is killed in a bombing.
Markham responds by launching a private investigation, eventually becoming chummy with assorted radicals, troublemakers and terrorists. He gradually draws near to the charismatic and possibly insane pediatrician Richard Gould, who seems to possess, or perhaps to be, the key to the mystery of Laura’s death.
Sadly, it isn’t much of a mystery. Although it’s structured as a detective story, the whodunit aspect of “Millennium People” seems halfhearted. Nor does the main villain turn out to be very interesting: His proffered justification for the violence he perpetrates — something to do with restoring meaning to a meaningless world through the infliction of meaningless violence — is neither plausible nor mad enough to render him threatening, let alone chilling. As for Markham, he seems intended as an everyman, but in the end he’s just a nobody. He sounds so dispassionate and bloodless that his quest and his abandonment of his own middle-class life are almost unintelligible.
What’s most unclear, though, is what we are to make of the middle-class rebels. Is their radicalization simply an expression of frustration with the rising cost of maintaining their lifestyle? Or does it represent something deeper, a manifestation of existential angst, a violent primeval response to the profound boredom of being civilized?
“Millennium People” has its pleasures. Some of the minor characters are well drawn, some of the satire is enjoyably biting, and there are passages of genuinely beautiful prose. But Ballard’s major novels are troubling, sometimes excoriating provocations. “Millennium People” amuses and entertains, but it doesn’t resonate or disturb.