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: boredom, meaningless, 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.’
‘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.
I am sure that a large part of the enduring mystery of the Renaissance masterpieces in the National Gallery was due to the absence of the explanatory matter that now drains away much of the strangeness and poetry of the Old Masters. I would stare at Crivelli’s Annunciation, charmed by the peacocks, loaves of bread and other incongruous items, the passer-by reading a book on the bridge and the Virgin in her jewel box of a house. I was forced to use my own imagination to stitch these elements into a master narrative that made some kind of sense, rather than read an extended wall caption and be solemnly told that the peacock was a symbol of eternal life. Perish the thought, and let the exquisite bird be itself, and nothing more or less than itself. What could be more natural, and more mysterious, than a peacock and a loaf of bread appearing on the scene to celebrate the forthcoming birth of the Saviour?
From J.G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life.
Philip K. Dick
Kramer leaned back. “You can see the situation. How can we deal with a factor like this? The perfect variable.”
“Perfect? Prediction should still be possible. A living thing still acts from necessity, the same as inanimate material. But the cause-effect chain is more subtle; there are more factors to be considered. The difference is quantitative, I think. The reaction of the living organism parallels natural causation, but with greater complexity.”
Gross and Kramer looked up at the board plates, suspended on the wall, still dripping, the images hardening into place. Kramer traced a line with his pencil.
“See that? It’s a pseudopodium. They’re alive, and so far, a weapon we can’t beat. No mechanical system can compete with that, simple or intricate. We’ll have to scrap the Johnson Control and find something else.”
“Meanwhile the war continues as it is. Stalemate. Checkmate. They can’t get to us, and we can’t get through their living minefield.”
Kramer nodded. “It’s a perfect defense, for them. But there still might be one answer.”
“Wait a minute.” Kramer turned to his rocket expert, sitting with the charts and files. “The heavy cruiser that returned this week. It didn’t actually touch, did it? It came close but there was no contact.”
“Correct.” The expert nodded. “The mine was twenty miles off. The cruiser was in space-drive, moving directly toward Proxima, line-straight, using the Johnson Control, of course. It had deflected a quarter of an hour earlier for reasons unknown. Later it resumed its course. That was when they got it.”
“It shifted,” Kramer said. “But not enough. The mine was coming along after it, trailing it. It’s the same old story, but I wonder about the contact.” Read More
“Crow Mountain” is a new short story by Can Xue in the July issue of Asymptote. Translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. The first few paragraphs:
I’d been waiting for a long time for Qinglian, who lived on the fifth floor, to take me to a place called “Crow Mountain.” It was a vacant five-story building on the brink of collapse. It used to be the municipal office. I had passed by it only once—the year I was four. I remembered Mama pointing at the large, tightly closed windows and saying to me, “This is ‘Crow Mountain’!” All kinds of questions occurred to me right away. “What do you mean, it’s a mountain?” I asked. “It’s obviously a building. Where are the crows? Are these windows shut so tightly because they’re afraid the crows inside will fly away?” Dad was standing beside me. I wanted to ask still more questions, but he cut me off: “Come on, let’s go!”
Later we moved to another part of the city. It was Qinglian who told me more about that building. Qinglian was only fourteen but already a beauty, and I envied her. She always frowned as she said to me, “Juhua, Juhua, how can you be so ugly? I’m embarrassed to be seen with you.” I knew she was kidding, so I didn’t get mad. We had been talking about “Crow Mountain” for a long time. Everything I knew about it came from Qinglian. Though I could still vaguely remember that large building outside the city, I hadn’t been back a single time. The city was too big. But Qinglian went every year because her uncle was a gatekeeper there.
“They’re always saying it’s going to collapse, but actually it isn’t. It’ll be fine for decades. It’s so much fun inside!” she said.
The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”
But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:
I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.
Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:
Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.
(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:
It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.
And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:
After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.
It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.
Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:
Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink
The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean witty, smart, intelligent, devastating, confounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).
Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—
Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).
A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.
The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:
We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.
But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.
The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.