The Atrocity Exhibition

The Year of Reading Dangerously – J. G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard has the unusual distinction of being widely known both for a mainstream novel, Empire of the Sun, and an avant garde one, Crash. Both, of course, have been made into films: the first by the appropriately family friendly Steven Spielberg, the second by the equally suitable David Cronenberg, who had made a career out of ‘body horror’ long before his Ballard adaptation. However, if you thought Crash was a little strange, you need to spend some time with Ballard’s earlier novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, the place where the idea for Crash originated, along with many other aspects of Ballard’s unsettling view of the twentieth century. The book itself has a chequered history: the chapter ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ led to the first American edition being pulped, and to an obscenity trial in the UK when published as a pamphlet. (Ballard’s attitude to this? “Of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” He wasn’t called as a witness for the defence.)

The Atrocity Exhibition doesn’t read like a novel. Each chapter is self-contained and only links to others in the repetition of character names and recurring motifs (though obsessions might be a more accurate description). The main character’s name changes from chapter to chapter – in the first he is Travis, in the second Talbot, and in the third Traven. Of course, the word ‘character’ is misleading: all the characters are representative rather than realistic. Ballard isn’t interested in character development, or even motivation in the sense we would normally understand it in a novel:

“Throughout The Atrocity Exhibition its central character has appeared in a succession of roles, ranging across a spectrum of possibilities available to each of us in our interior lives.”

Ballard uses aspects of the exterior world (landscapes, vehicles, celebrities, news footage) to create representations of the interior world. (This is echoed in the many references to artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst). Characters blend with landscapes and buildings:

“Tallis was immediately struck by the unusual planes of her face, intersecting each other like the dunes around her…The young woman was a geometric equation, the demonstration model of a landscape.”

Perhaps the best examples of this are the lists which appear throughout:

“(1) Spectro-heliogram of the sun; (2) Front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London; (3)Transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite; (4) Chronograms by E. J. Marey; (5) Photograph taken at noon, August 7th, 1945, of the sand-sea Qattara Depression, Egypt”

Ballard has said that these lists were produced by “free association”, and they produce, to some extent, in miniature the effect of the novel as a whole.

However, the discontinuity between chapters, and between the titled sections which replace paragraphs within chapters, is not the most alienating aspect of the work; that lies in the prose style itself. Written at times as if a research paper for a scientific journal, the novel is dense with the language of medicine, psychology and geometry. (The chapter title ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’ in fact comes from a scientific paper). This emphasises both the lack of interior / exterior differentiation, and the sense that the novel itself is an experiment. Ballard, however, is experimenting not simply with the representation of reality like other writers, but with questions of what, or even where, reality is.

As well as the recurring motif of the automobile accident, inevitably linked (as most things in the novel are) to sexual arousal, Ballard builds the novel around the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, sex symbols such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and the aforementioned Ronald Regan. Ballard’s prescience is remarkable: almost everything he refers to is still in the public consciousness forty years later. He also forecasts the growth of celebrity culture and the attraction of filmic violence, whether real or imaginary. In fact, the novel is the internet, with its non-linear narratives based on thematic obsessions, its focus on sex, celebrity, and violence, and its awareness of the relationship of all three to arousal. If the novel is uncomfortable reading, it’s because it feels like it’s still happening.

Danger rating: feels very much like you are entering the mind of a madman – the danger is you might become one. I read the annotated 1993 edition with Ballard’s saner comments in the margin as therapy.

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