“An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s defense of idle time

“An Apology for Idlers”
by

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Detail from Crivelli’s Annunciation

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Still Life with Musical Instruments — Pieter Claesz

“Supplemental Income” — Thomas Bernhard

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Birds Are Laughing on Top of the Tree — Mu Pan

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Line 27: Sherlock Holmes (Vladimir Nabokov)

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From Pale Fire.

Detail from Crivelli’s Annunciation

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A review of Millennium People, J.G. Ballard’s novel of middle-class boredom and meaningless violence

Act of Violence, Rene Magritte

Early in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, our narrator David Markham remarks that “A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.” The sentence delivers three of the novel’s key terms: boredommeaningless, and violence. These words (or iterations of these words) repeat so often in Millennium People that any connotative spark they might bear becomes dulled. Even the violence becomes boring.

The violence in the novel resonates from its central plot about a middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina, an “enclave of middle-class decorum.” Corporate psychologist David Markham is drawn into this revolution after his ex-wife dies in an apparently-meaningless bombing at Heathrow Airport. (She dies at the baggage carousel—symbolically-overloaded and thoroughly-Ballardian). Initially, Markham’s goal is to infiltrate the group as a kind of unwitting police spy. However, he soon takes part in acts of terrorism and meaningless violence, led in large part by Kay Churchill, an ex-film studies professor who rails against the evils of Hollywood and travel. Soon, Kay ventriloquizes Markham:

…I could hear her voice inside my head: bullying, pleading, sensible and utterly mad. The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.

Kay eventually leads Markham to Millennium People’s would-be heart of darkness, demented pediatrician Dr. Richard Gould. Kay and Markham:

‘Richard says that people who find the world meaningless find meaning in pointless violence.’

‘Richard? Dr Richard Gould?’

‘You’ll meet him again, when he’s ready. He’s the leader of our middle-class rebellion. His mind is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way, he’s one of them.’

Kay is a far more interesting character than Gould. Unfortunately, Ballard teases out Gould as the Big Bad, occasionally having him show up to dialogue with Markham on finding big-em Meaning in all the meaninglessness of the world. God as a Void, the evils of the 20th century infecting the new millennium, etc. These ideas repeat and repeat and repeat, bumping along a muddled plot. Indeed, much of the plot and many of the themes of Millennium People might be condensed into this conversation between Markham and his one-time colleague/boring-assed doppelgänger Henry the psychologist. Markham speaks first in this exchange, explaining the revolution to Henry (I’ve added bold-faced emphasis if you’re in a hurry):

‘Middle-class pique. We sense we’re being exploited. All those liberal values and humane concern for the less fortunate. Our role is to keep the lower orders in check, but in fact we’re policing ourselves.’

Henry watched me tolerantly over his whisky. ‘Do you believe all that?’

‘Who knows? The important thing is that the people at Chelsea Marina believe it. It’s amateurish and childish, but the middle classes are amateurish, and they’ve never left their childhoods behind. But there’s something much more important going on. Something that ought to worry your friends at the Home Office.”

“And that is?’

‘Decent and level-headed people are hungry for violence.’

‘Grim, if true.’ Henry put down his whisky. ‘Directed at what?’

‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong – you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.

While Ballard’s diagnosis of the end of the 20th century is both perceptive and prescient, the novel’s repetitions build to very little. Ballard puts his interlocutors into fascinating territory, but then squirms away. Here’s Gould holding forth to Markham:

We’re living in a soft-regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates. Somehow we’ve got to break free. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point.

Markham then immediately turns the conversation to the Heathrow bombing that killed his ex-wife. The potential for a shocking exchange simply veers back to the novel’s central thesis.

And that thesis becomes muddied. Markham, Gould, Kay, and other revolutionaries make bold, radical declarations, but often append them in a sentimentality at odds with their revolutionary claims. Ballard’s characters let us know that they think murder is wrong. The contradiction between the impulse for meaningless violence and the core (and very middle-class) values that often restrains the impulse remains unexplored. This unresolved contradiction might have been a purposeful tactic meant to highlight the limits of our narrator’s desire for real revolution, but there’s little to lead a reader to this conclusion beyond his own hopeful imagination. Ballard seems as uncommitted as the characters.

A lack of force and shock—that’s the problem of Millennium People, I suppose. It’s unfair and unproductive to expect Ballard to rewrite Crash or High-Rise here, even though he’s playing with many of the same themes and motifs. And yet those novels exist. Dr. Richard Gould is a pale answer to Crash’s Dr. Robert Vaughan (or Richard Wilder of High-Rise or Strangman of The Drowned World or Dr. Barbara of Rushing to Paradise…). Ballard’s satire suffers from a lack of full commitment. The hyperbole peters out; the tonal inconsistencies, far from clashing, become dull.

Still, there’s much to commend in Millennium People even if it falls short of Ballard’s finest work. The novel’s larded with little riffs and satirical observations: “America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up,” Kay remarks. Markham observes in a riot “the outrage of professional men and women who had never known pain and whose soft bodies had been pummelled only by their lovers and osteopaths.” We’re informed that “From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act.” (I would love to read the notebook where Ballard recorded these phrases, if such a treasure exists).

Millennium People’s prescience—like most of Ballard’s previous work—only comes into sharper relief over time. The erosion of the middle class, the spike in income inequality, the inability of regular working people to live in places like London or New York City anymore—Ballard’s mapped it all out here. The contemporary world Ballard satirizes in Millennium People—published just a few years before his death in 2009—is already thoroughly Ballardian. The millennium caught up to the man.

Zorn’s Lemma — Hollis Frampton

Story II — Hugo Simberg

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The Bus — Paul Kirchner

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