Reviewed by Ted Gioia What slasher films are to cinema, J. Ballard's books are to literature. Violence is put on center stage, not for condemnation or edification, but for the sheer adrenalin boost of 'exhibiting' severe damage inflicted on people and objects. Yet the peculiarly repulsive flavor of Ballard's narratives comes from their constant juxtaposition of violence and precision. One of the most frequently used words in The Atrocity Exhibition is "geometry"—it appears every few paragraphs in this pseudo-novel.
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What is this? On reading it, one may well wonder. Once can ask oneself: what is it for? What is it trying to do? Who is it written for? What is the author about? Indeed: what is a novel for? Rather than pushing the boundaries of fiction, if indeed there are any, Ballard has succeeded here in merely pushing the limits of what the reader will put up with. The commentary on this novel is surprisingly thin on the ground. Burroughs , a writer whom Ballard admired.
Burroughs wrote the preface to the book. All 15 pieces had been printed and some even reprinted before The Atrocity Exhibition was published. There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and it does not follow any of the conventional novelistic standards: the protagonist such as he is changes name with each chapter or story Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc. Traven , whose identity is still not known with certainty. Suffering from a mental breakdown, the protagonist—a doctor at a mental hospital—surrenders to a world of psychosis.
Traven tries to make sense of the many public events that dominate his world the death of Marilyn Monroe , the Space Race , and especially the assassination of John F. Kennedy , by restaging them in ways that, to his psychotic mind, gives them a more personal meaning. Characters whom he kills return again in later chapters his wife seems to die several times. The Atrocity Exhibition He complained I was making his eyes bleed, turning them out. For me it was exemplary, a flag to wave for authors and readers.
Marc Haefele, a young Doubleday editor at the time, remembers that a few weeks before publication, the company president was touring a warehouse in Virginia when the book was drawn to his attention.
The novel presents fragments or avatars of a traumatised man, variously named Travis, Travers, Traven, Talbot or Talbert, who is conducting some kind of spun-out scientific experiment, which also takes the form of a lecture or media spectacle. Traven is both a researcher and an experimental subject or patient in an institution where white-coated medical science has become contaminated by other things: pornography, celebrity, the imminence of violent disaster.
Ronald Reagan and the car-safety campaigner Ralph Nader get the same treatment. Decency is what separates rational economic actors, dutifully maximising their personal benefit, from the racaille , from scum. It is the source of order. Living in the shadow of disaster, Travers is an exemplary modern subject. He may, of course, also be insane. In , when he was already terminally ill, I interviewed him.
The Atrocity Exhibition by J. Ballard — Reviewed by Ted Gioia. What slasher films are to cinema, J. For some reason, trigonometry and calculus get a reprieve. Of course, Ballard has his explanations, invariably placed in the accompanying notes to the text. But even if the geometry is right here, I have doubts about the biology. I give Ballard credit for reaching for extreme effects, but the payoff never arrives.
Kennedy was disqualified at the hospital after taking a turn for the worse. Johnson now continued the race in the lead…. In these brief passages, Ballard makes me wish that he had taken a different path here. I purchased my dog-eared copy used through the mail — the book is out-of-print are you surprised? Sad to say, future owners will probably wonder the same about me, and go in turn to wash their hands.
Ballard himself. So much more the pity. We are informed that sections of the book had already appeared in such journals as Ambit, Encounter, ICA Eventsheet, International Times and Transatlantic Review , which would at least indicate that Ballard was seeking a wider, or different, audience for his short stories. Secondly, the idiosyncratic style Ballard was developing in The Terminal Beach and The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race is now confirmed into a format where paragraphs are titled, incidents described apparently at random, and characters behave in strange ways without being strongly located.
Its 42 chapters provide a clear contrast to the other novels, which are of similar length but consist of 8, 15, and 14 chapters respectively.
London: Hutchinson, , he said:. They are much more quantified, a whole stream of random events is taking place. At the interview quoted earlier, Ballard commented:. But, of course, in this case, informing us of what the character is not, in not very helpful in explaining in what sense they are characters. The central character, then, appears in many of these short stories in a composite role, and one might make a case for saying that the continual change in his name reflects his persisting uncertainties about his own identity.
The activities of this central character constitute the core of the book, and scattered throughout the text are interpretations of his behavior. For example:. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event — a liberation of sexual energy — mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.
This is confirmed in the next chapter story? His mouth worked silently, eyes fixed on Tallis. He stopped and then began again with an effort, lips and jaw moving in exaggerated spasms as if he were trying to extricate some gumlike residue from his teeth. After several intervals, when he had failed to make a single audible sound, he turned and went back to the helicopter. Without any noise it took off into the sky. Such scenes and such prose are patently vulnerable to parody, but this silent helicopter and unconsummated conversation, like a film without the soundtrack, this matter-of-fact acceptance of a strange abstracted murder, are representative of the proliferation of bizarre scenes and events in The Atrocity Exhibition.
What he implies is that when advertising and the visual media in some meaningful sense are the world — then the concomitant multiplicity of images provides a challenge to conventional notions of an objective reality that has clear-cut and tangible attributes. The disapprobation conventionally attached to subjectivism is thus misconceived, being predicated upon an unduly delimited conception of the objective for coping with the world in which we live. His situation is identified in italics:.
In the suburbs of Hell Travis walked in the flaring lights of the petrochemical plants. The ruins of abandoned cinemas stood at the street corners, faded hoardings facing them across the empty streets. Nature and a few strategically placed sticks of dynamite was on the side of Kerans.
Travis has no such powerful ally, and is thus dependent upon the resources he can muster from within himself. Traven is committed to a quest for some ontological fortress that can provide him with the certitude that the world cannot give. The artifacts, imagery and public events of the external world thus become the raw materials from which Traven constructs a private world. Inner and outer worlds must be reconciled, and only the outer world can be modified.
A scenario results from an attempt to describe in more or less detail some hypothetical sequence of events. Ballard is fond of such associations. It also suggests Genet. The sexual scenarios that are a specialty of the brothel in The Balcony have their counterpart in the world outside its walls. For Genet as for Ballard the meaning of public events, the trappings of responsibility must be re-evaluated and their connexion with private fantasies made manifest.
There was no doubt more than a hint Dali-style publicity involved in this latter enterprise Ballard has elsewhere claimed that the painter is a genius , but the links between author and character are willingly displayed.
Throughout most of the stories is a psychiatrist Dr. Nathan, whose role is an interpretative one. Ballard said of him In the MacBeth interview:. He relates to the other psychiatrists in the other stories, who serve the role of analysing the events of the narrative from the point of view of the clinical implications.
He is, however, a character about whom we are told very little, and yet references to his smoking habits occur time and time again. When they are collected together and published as a novel it looks like an opportunity lost. Certainly the irony of The Atrocity Exhibition is the shear sameness of it all. From the outset Nathan declares that he doubts whether the distinction between the doctor and patient is valid any longer p.
Nathan decided not to speak to him. A typical paragraph begins:. The optimum auto disaster. Panels consisting of drive-in theatre personnel, students and middle-income housewives were encouraged to devise the optimum auto-disaster. A wide choice of impact modes was available, including roll-over, roll-over followed by head-on collision, multiple pile-ups and motorcade attacks. The choice of death postures included 1 normal driving position 2 sleep, rear seat 3 acts of intercourse, by both driver and passenger 4 severe anginal spasm… pp.
America masks its terrors behind patterns of fact. Here the intolerable discloses its presence not in the grimaces of comedy or tragedy but in the bland citations of the scientific report. Since The War no novel or play has given body to the larger disturbances of the American consciousness. Literature, one hears, is dead, or too enfeebled to risk arduous adventures.
Nevertheless, documents keep appearing that touch upon apprehensions equal to any in the history of men. For the reports claim to refer to the responses of, amongst others, mental patients, witnesses of the Kennedy assassination, soldiers, housewives, students, and psychotic children.
Typically, they are written so as to confirm Dr. At times the language of the reports is almost interchangeable with what we have come to expect of Nathan in the first chapters.
The Atrocity Exhibition
JG Ballard: obsesses over the ways violent mass media spectacles — Vietnam, the assassination of JKF, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe — send shockwaves across the global unconscious. Photograph: Rolph Gobits. Ballard was such a superb commentator on his own fiction, one wonders whether the fiction was needed at all. Might he not have simply pretended it existed, then given us books of pure ideation? For a reissue, he annotated the novel with reflections and anecdotes. When I first read the book, I found the fiction as drastic and incoherent as a DMT trip, whereas the notes were highly stimulating. The Atrocity Exhibition obsesses over the ways in which violent mass media spectacles — Vietnam , the assassination of JKF, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe — send shockwaves across the electric circuits of the global unconscious.
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
The Atrocity Exhibition is an experimental novel of linked stories or "condensed novels" by British writer J. The book was originally published in the UK in by Jonathan Cape. All of the book originally appeared as stories in magazines before being collected. There is some debate on whether the book is an experimental novel with chapters or a collection of linked stories. With titles such as "Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy," "Love and Napalm: Export USA," and " Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan ," and by constantly associating the Kennedy assassination with a sexual or sporting event, the work has maintained controversy, especially in the United States, where some considered it a slur on the dead president's image. Ballard claimed that "it was an attempt for me to make sense of that tragic event.