The Atrocity Exhibition – JG Ballard (1969)
‘Violence is the key
The irrational all-pervading violence of the modern world is the subject of this hauntingly powerful novel. The central character’s dreams are haunted by images of John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, dead astronauts and motor-crash victims as he traverses the screaming wastes of nervous breakdown. Seeking his sanity, he casts himself in a number of roles; H-bomber pilot, presidential assassin, crash victim, psychopath.
Finally through the black , perverse magic of violence he transcends his psychic turmoils to find the key to a bizarre new sexuality…’
Blurb from the 1972 Panther paperback edition
By turns disturbing, inspiring, exciting and baffling, Ballard’s at-the-time controversial work is a surreal examination of society’s relationship with media, technology and violence.
The structure is a series of what may best be described as tone poems, themselves compartmentalised into labelled sections like the exhibits in the Atrocity Exhibition of the title.
Apart from the last piece ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ (which although true to the themes of the rest of the book seems to have been added as an afterthought) and ‘The Generations of America’ (a list of American names written in biblical style with the word ‘begot’ replaced by ‘shot’) most sections seem to show an alternate reality featuring a central character whose name changes slightly each time: Travers, Travis, Talbert etc.
The Ballard motifs of light aircraft, empty swimming pools, modernist architecture and surrealist art are all well to the fore.
In true surrealist tradition, Ballard often achieves effect by the contrast of disparate images or objects, thus forcing us to make a relationship between the two, such as when he imagines Elizabeth Taylor (an iconic figure of popular culture) with gills; the gills brought to visual life by the comparison to the balconies of the London Hilton Hotel.
Other images – another surrealist device – are taken out of context and their scale altered, such as when hoardings display posters of blown-up sections of actresses’ faces and bodies. Removed from context they become abstract landscapes, rather like Ballard’s prose which, with its surreal metaphors, seems to suggest other meanings lying tantalisingly close beneath the words, but still out of reach of understanding.
Like his contemporary, Nigel Kneale, who in his play ‘The Year of The Sex Olympics’ prophesied the attraction and danger of reality shows, Ballard foresees a world where we are numb to murder and atrocity, where surveys are conducted on the attractiveness of assassination scenarios.
Paradoxically, and perhaps fittingly and deliberately, Ballard’s prose is poetic and seductive and although this book may be seen as part of society’s shift toward its desensitisation in terms of its attitude to violence, it is actually a warning to the future.
The word ‘geometry’ crops up regularly in this book – as it does in other works – but not with such insistent regularity. Running through these episodes is a catalogue – a thread – of visual connections which relate one tableaux to another, usually involving the angles of limbs or architecture or components of a mechanism.
For readers new to Ballard’s work it isn’t a good place to start. It’s a demanding piece which requires abandoning one’s normal expectations of a novel, but one which is rewarding if taken in the right frame of mind.