The premise of JG Ballard’s Millennium People is an intriguing one: after all if British society is not encapsulated in the steadfast blue collar brigade, then in who else are its values manifest?
Intriguing too is the suggestion that the middle classes are the new oppressed class, clinging onto a lifestyle comprising nannies, pony-trekking and Range Rovers, but only just.
The residents of Chelsea Marina are just such a class, a class who have it all – at least on the face of it. Scratch underneath and it soon becomes apparent that the middle classes – those realised by Ballard – are just a second hand Ford Fiesta away from revolution.
Millennium People starts with a bewildering series of events – firebombs, burnt-out cars and Heathrow airport bombs which prove particularly fatal to ex-wives.
Psychologist David Markham finds himself up to his eyeballs in millennium nihilism. Having lost his ex-wife in the Heathrow bomb our hero decides to investigate further the spate of civil unrest in and around the Chelsea Marina area of London.
What unfolds is a story essentially of spiritual angst. Lost in the consumer society of the 21st century, these people are ships without an anchor, drifting in a post-modern sea of mortgage repayments and where commercialisation is the new God.
Having taken some pains to set up the premise including the introduction of charismatic insurgents and revolutionary film lecturers, for my money the book loses the plot.
Markham takes part in several acts of vandalism including burning down the National Film Theatre, all of which are described with a certain panache, but beyond these episodes, arguably the novel fails to develop in any meaningful way.
True, the further Markham falls in with the ringleaders of the Chelsea Marina insurgency, the further he drifts away from his psychosomatic wife, Sally. Yet, the relationship never feels central to the novel. Nor does Markham’s growing relationship with the idealistic Kay Churchill, ex-film lecturer, idealist and driving force behind the insurgents, ever truly satisfy.
If it’s emptiness Ballard was hoping to portray here, he hits the mark over and over again.
Throw in a Man of God turned killer for the sheer thrill of it, a ruthless doctor who nevertheless has a heart of gold for disabled children and an utterly bizarre reconstruction of the Jill Dando murder and the whole thing starts to unravel at a worrying rate of knots.
We never do understand quite why a successful professional like Markham, detached as he is, drives round London in his Range Rover at the beck and call of said doctor. Nor does his brief relationship with the demon vicar truly resonate.
Frankly the final third of this novel rather drags as both plot and characters run out of steam somewhat. Pity, because it had all started so promisingly.
Markham’s return to normality and the return to respectability of the Marina residents though perhaps not surprising means the novel ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
Okay, so the revolution might have petered out, but one was rather hoping that the novel could avoid a similar fate. Alas not.