Friday, March 30, 2012

We are the 55%!

I don't think I ever would have picked up the late J.G. Ballard's Millennium People if it weren't for the Audiobook Jukebox. I'd never read anything by him (although I enjoyed the movie version of his Empire of the Sun), but I was intrigued by the book's description -- what could be better than a middle class Occupy movement, before there was an Occupy movement? Ballard's book was originally published in 2003, but was not available until last year in this country. I hope he's congratulating himself on his prescience, wherever he is. Plus, he writes one of the greatest lines of recent memory: "The next revolution will be about parking."

Psychologist David Markham is preparing for a brief business trip to Florida with his second wife. As they are waiting for their taxi to Heathrow (pronounced with stress on the second syllable), the television reports a bombing in the baggage claim area. Markham is shocked to see his first wife's body on the television, one of the bombing's few victims. The police seem to have no leads, so Markham decides to do some investigating of his own. Arrested during a cat show, at his arraignment he meets Kay Churchill, a film instructor who -- among other things -- encourages her students to make pornography. Kay introduces David to the residents of the upscale Chelsea Marina development (I'm thinking it's something like Canary Wharf but on the other end of London). Led by Kay, and a creepy former pediatrician named Richard Gould, Chelsea Marina has gone on strike. Residents have stopped paying the bills, and there have been several confrontations with police.

Markham gets pulled in almost despite himself -- he begins an affair with Kay and ventures out with her and Gould on more dangerous forms of protest: bombing the National Film Theatre, among other places. He learns of Gould's unsavory history, and begins to suspect he could be related to the Heathrow bombing. Soon he finds himself on the run from the police, or is he?

For all its currency, this is definitely a British book, not inscrutable by any means, but definitely with a flavor that feels slightly foreign. The Chelsea Marina protestors are ridiculous in their middle-class unhappiness and Ballard shows no pity in satirizing them. Along with its black humor, it seemed infused with British reserve -- despite the inflammatory behavior of some of its characters -- particularly that of its narrator. It ended with a whimper. ("The Hollow Men" almost kept me from my English major, god! Eliot is dense! [not intellectually, of course]) The resolution came as no surprise, but at the same time, it really didn't make sense. Of course, this could be Ballard's intent, does anything that has happened in this new millennium actually make sense?

Narrator David Rintoul, whom I've only seen on Masterpiece (Theatre) shows but never heard, is pretty much the embodiment of David Markham, who -- even though he claims to be seeking out his first-wife's killers -- is really more acted upon than acting. Rintoul portrays him bored, superior, and unruffled. And while I agree with Rintoul's interpretation of this character, I wished for a slightly livelier response to such events as escaping from a burning building, learning that his wife is sleeping with a colleague, or facing a gun held by the unstable Richard Gould. Rintoul handles his narrator duties well -- he differentiates between characters without dramatic voicing, he reads quickly and clearly and his deep voice is very pleasant to listen to.

I feel pretty schizophrenic about Millennium People, which -- again -- is probably how Ballard wants me to feel (sneaky guy!). The person who is telling us this story is a nonentity in the center -- everything we learn is filtered through him -- he's deliberately uninteresting. Yet, the ideas are big here and when the novel ends with nothing actually resolved (except that the protestors go back to quietly paying their mortgages and Markham back to his upper-class neurotic clients), it ends up being me -- the reader -- who continues to ponder those ideas. So, I'm still thinking about it, but I didn't like it much.

AudioGO and the Audiobook Jukebox provided me a copy of the Millennium People through the Solid Gold Reviewer program. I appreciate their generosity along with that of all the other publishers who participate. Makes me feel quite special.

[My cats, Adele and Dodger, would never qualify for any cat show, but they are so cute -- and I couldn't think of anything else to illustrate this story -- that here they are. Thank you for bearing with a doting mother.]

Millennium People by J.G. Ballard
Narrated by David Rintoul
AudioGo 2011, 8:46

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