Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

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  1. 10 December 2010 at 2:03 am
  2. 10 December 2010 at 2:06 am

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