Ballard Man. That's what she called me. Despite the fact I'd only read- no, purchased- a solitary book by the author.
Let me set the scene. It was a time known as "the late 90's." The book in question was Crash, Ballard's controversial exploration of symphorophilia. "She" was a matronly assistant manager at Borders Books, where I was grinding it out as a bookseller. You see where this is going?
Every time she said it, the moniker rustled the wisps of hair on her lip like a prairie wind, her tone hinting at a desire to have cold, fetishistic car sex with me. I was too naive to realize it at the time, but the nickname was both an invitation and a threat. When I finally got around to reading the book, I realized how close I had come to winding up on the back of a milk carton. It would be ten long years before I was able to stomach a second helping of Ballard.
Published in his native England in 2003, Millennium People is finally seeing the posthumous light of U.S. day. It tells the preposterous yet plausible story of David Markham, a psychologist whose ex-wife is killed during an airport bombing. In an effort to assign meaning to the seemingly random act, David sets out to discover the identity of those responsible. He begins by infiltrating a local group of bourgeois activists looking to trade their happiness for intellectual respectability. His first protest, an anti-cat show demonstration, ends in inexplicable violence as housewives clash with police over the caging of pedigree pets. The animals seem happy, but as one woman tells David, "This isn't a cat show, this is a concentration camp!"
Having proven himself at the cat show, David is accepted into the inner circle of the rebellion and is granted audience with its mastermind- pedophile pediatrician (or paedophile paediatrician, for you Brits,) Richard Gould. David can't help but be intrigued by the charismatic kid-toucher, and soon finds himself crossing the line from undercover agent to willing participant.
It's been a while since my traumatic experience with Crash, but Millennium People isn't the cold, plotless affair I remember that book being. It does, however, posses the same bone-dry wit, presenting its absurdities with a deadpan delivery. This allows Ballard to paint the disenfranchised middle-class as a serious threat while simultaneously treating them like the punchline to a joke.
There are other similarities as well. Dr. Gould and his followers strongly recall Dr. Vaughan and his accident enthusiasts, while David Markham is just another incarnation of Ballard himself. And terrorism in the 21st century is just another way for the obsessed author to explore the relationship between modernity and the human condition.
Thematically, the book is like Fight Club set in Middle England. Instead of disillusioned twenty-somethings, it is populated by the midlife crisis set. Lines like, "The people here are gripped by a powerful illusion, the whole middle-class dream. It's all they live for- liberal educations, civic responsibility, respect for the law. They may think they're free, but they're trapped and impoverished," could have come straight from the mouth of an aging Tyler Durden. He just would have said them with a posh accent.
Which makes me wonder if David Markham inspired impressionable middle-class Brits much in the way Durden inspired anti-consumerist American youth. Because at times it is hard to differentiate between the satire and the point Millennium People is actually trying to make. When Richard Gould says, "There's a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better," I can't help but wonder if this is Ballard speaking through him. The fact that David and the residents of Chelsea Marina rise up so violently, only to return to their normal lives without any consequence seems to corroborate this. Maybe they didn't need a specific cause to fight for, they just needed to fight. Or maybe this is just Ballard commenting on the futility of revolution in the modern world. Change is a pipedream. Activism is meaningless. It helps the activist more than it helps the cause.
Regardless of the answer, Millennium People presents a complex web of ideas and a healthy dose of black humor. It's up to the reader whether they want to ascribe to any of the rhetoric, and whether they think Ballard would mock them for it. The lack of a definable moral message in a book dealing with terrorism could account for its fashionably late publication in the states, but I say better late than never. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, American audiences should be better equipped to grapple with such sensitive subject matter. They say time heals all wounds. If that's the case, I might just have to confront my fears and go read Crash again.