I’m having a hard time figuring out how to articulate my feelings about J. G. Ballard’s Millennium People. I didn’t exactly dislike it, but I also didn’t like it much. It’s competent, but uninvolving, I guess. Interesting in concept, but dull in execution. And ultimately, it felt kind of pointless, which may in fact be the point, but it sure doesn’t make for good reading.
The novel is about a violent rebellion of the middle-class residents of a London neighborhood called Chelsea Marina. The main character, David Markham, is not a resident of Chelsea Marina, but he becomes involved in the rebellion—the terrorism, really—as part of his investigation of the death of his ex-wife, who was killed by a bomb planted at Heathrow. David joins the group to find out if they were behind the bombing, but he soon seems beguiled by the violence itself.
The terror mastermind, a pediatrician named Richard Gould, revels in the pointlessness of the bombings. Although his compatriots joined the movement out of frustration at expanded parking fees, high mortgage payments, and other middle-class frustrations, Gould wants to create chaos and tear down the whole system. He plans actions that are deliberately pointless and somehow gets people, including David, to go along with him. Some, like the sociopathic Vera, seem to enjoy the violence. University lecturer Kay Churchill seems to actually want to make change, and disaffected priest Stephen Dexter is just looking for a cause.
Even as I write, I’m becoming intrigued by the ideas in this book. But I just couldn’t get into the book itself. The pointlessness of the violence is part of the problem, I think. It’s just impossible to care about people who raid the BBC or bomb the Tate Modern for no particular reason—or who let themselves get convinced that it is part of a cause. The characters are all either vile people or too easily led; none of them are convincing. David Markham thinks and thinks about why he’s doing what he’s doing, but does he ever come to a conclusion? No. Does that stop him from acting? No. But he think about it all the time, and after a while, I got tired of listening. I finished the book, but I spaced out an awful lot because David’s thoughts just kept plodding along, making no headway.
The plodding nature of David’s thoughts is another issue. At first, I really liked the slow, detached, almost contemplative style of the prose. It was a nice contrast to the chaos of the plot. But the tone never shifts. The characters all sound alike, and only rarely is there a palpable sense of urgency. It’s difficult to tell how much of this is due to Ballard’s writing style and how much is due to David Rintoul’s narration, but I found it the tone too monotonous to hold my interest. Rintoul’s narration, much like Ballard’s writing, is generally competent, but he didn’t make much effort to give the characters different voices, which added to the monotony. It also made dialogue extremely difficult to follow.
The plot structure is also not especially well-suited to audio. Although the narrative is mainly chronological, Ballard employs some flashbacks, usually by starting a chapter at some point after the previous chapter and then backtracking to fill readers in on events that occurred between the chapters. So, for example, David hears about the Tate Modern bomb, and then we go back to find out what happened at the bombing. This is a perfectly effective technique in print; however, it’s difficult to keep track of the time line on audio because you can’t flip back and see how much time has actually passed. By halfway through the book, I had lost all sense of time. The rebellion could have lasted a few weeks or a year. I have no idea. I probably could have worked it out in print.
I can’t really say whether this is a good book or not, although I didn’t like it much. I also didn’t dislike it exactly. I just wasn’t much interested. I finished, so I guess that’s something, although it was mostly inertia that kept me listening. If I’d felt the same sense of malaise with a print book, I would have quit reading. As it is, the book didn’t actively annoy me, and it was certainly better than the drive-time radio I would have been listening to if I’d given up on it. So there’s that. Not much, I know, but I’m just not feeling much in one way or the other.
Review copy of Millennium People by J.G. Ballard obtained through Audiobook Jukebox. Narrated by David Rintoul. 8 hrs., 46 minutes. Audio edition published by AudioGo, 2011.