What slasher films are to cinema, J.G. 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. (Example: "In his face the diagram of bones formed a geometry of murder.") "Algebra" runs a close second. For some reason, trigonometry and calculus get a reprieve.
And it's not just math. Ballard also draws on the jargon of engineering, technology and medical science, usually in strange, new contexts, imparting an austere, textbook coldness to the maimings, woundings and couplings that provide most of the meager storyline in this controversial novel.
Has any other writer described the relation between two lovers with such soul-numbing dispassion? For example:
"When she offered him a cigarette he involuntarily held her wrist, feeling the junction between the radius and ulna bones. He followed her across the dunes. The young woman was a geometric equation, the demonstration model of a landscape. Her breasts and buttocks illustrated Enneper's surface of negative constant curve, the differential coefficient of the pseudo-sphere."
Usually context imparts emotional contours to extravagant prose, but Ballard strives to remove context in The Atrocity Exhibition. His novel is an assortment of fragments, most of them single paragraphs, each with its own title. The titles are clearly meant to provoke. Some examples:
In his introduction, Ballard tells his readers that they do not need to read these fragments sequentially, and can even skip passages that don’t "catch their eye." In a normal narrative, such an approach would make it hard to follow the plot, but no worries, mate (as my Aussie friends say): there is no plot in The Atrocity Exhibition, although its deranged protagonist—who is perhaps a doctor at a mental hospital, or maybe a patient—has aspirations of setting one in motion. His goals are ambiguous, and seem to range from harmless staged re-enactments of violent acts to the actual launch of World War III. But readers expecting a clear (or even vague) explanation of motive or intent, let alone the unfolding of a narrative, will be disappointed. You could almost imagine Ballard removing all the paragraphs that moved the story forward, leaving us with the remainder as milestones on a road to nowhere.
Roland Barthes once explained that he liked to construct his books out of fragments because the surprise, excite- ment and jouissance of a new start imparted a sense of momentum and delight to his works. The fragment, he believed, "implies immediate bliss: it is a phantasm of discourse, an opening of desire." Ballard relies on the same technique, but I suspect his excitement came from the sudden way these fragments could end—with a car crash, a corpse, a “wound profile.” Instead of Barthes's bliss, we get Ballard's bloody mess.
Ballard borrows many of his most peculiar and irritating techniques from the Alain Robbe-Grillet playbook: killing off a character who returns inexplicably later in the book, changing a character's name for no decipherable reason, returning to the same incidents over and over again as if plots could suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders. If he aims to unsettle his readers—and with this author, that aim is a given, no?—he may have some justification for these maneuvers, but the very context undermines Ballard's gambit. In a more structured work, such radical touches would be disturbing, but in the context of The Atrocity Exhibition they merely add to the general incoherence—just as the piling up of acts of violence serves to reduce rather than magnify their impact on the reader.
Of course, Ballard has his explanations, invariably placed in the accompanying notes to the text. The corpses, he assures, aren't necessarily corpses, and so we shouldn't be surprised if the dead rise again and deliver enigmatic dialogue in a later chapter. Their bloody, strewn bodies simply represent, in Ballard’s lexicon, "Alternate Deaths" which are staged by the protagonist (i.e. the fellow whose name changes from time to time in the novel). These "Alternate Deaths" —a new way of dying?—"take place partly in his own mind and partly in the external world," Ballard helpfully explains.
Okay I get it now: the corpse is only 'partly' dead. Sorta like the proverbial gal who was 'a little bit pregnant.' And, hey, if radioactive material (another Ballard favorite) can have a half-life, shouldn't people be allowed to have a half- death? But even if the geometry is right here, I have doubts about the biology. Call me old-fashioned, I’d still like to see a coroner's report and find out what the presiding forensic pathologist makes of this 'Alternate Death' business.
But the most characteristic sign of this author’s style is the insertion of some extravagant proclamation, comparison or metaphor that grabs our attention, but usually only through its idiocy. Some examples:
"In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace." Well, maybe Sharon Stone would agree. But I’ll stick with Tolstoy for the time being.
“What our children have to fear are not the cars on the freeways of tomorrow, but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.” Hey, someone better phone Child Protective Services and have them check in at the Ballard residence.
“Christ’s crucifixion could be regarded as the first traffic accident.” Yes, and the Roman Empire was like NASCAR, and Pontius Pilate had a crush on Danica Patrick.
“One looks forward to the day when the General Theory of Relativity and the Principia will out-sell the Kama Sutra in back-street bookshops.” I get it: Fifty Shades of Newtonian Physics.
Etc. etc. etc.
I give Ballard credit for reaching for extreme effects, but the payoff never arrives. His reports of "sexual congress with a rear exhaust assemble" sound like the kickoff for a third-rate dirty joke, as do his grotesque chapters on Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy—which caused so much controversy at the time of initial publication, but now just fall flat. Reading "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" one wonders who would find this amusing or interesting or exciting or even well-written. “The starting point was the Texas Book Depository, where all bets were placed on the Presidential race….Kennedy was disqualified at the hospital after taking a turn for the worse. Johnson now continued the race in the lead…."
The most inspired and perceptive writing in The Atrocity Exhibition comes in the notes to the "chapters," added by the author in 1990, rather than from the text itself. Here Ballard offers up aperçus and aphorisms of a higher order. He wonders whether future visitors from outer space will consider swimming pools as "votive offerings to the distant sea." He enters into insightful discourses on celebrities—noting that Mae West resembles a figment of Andy Warhol’s imagination (and suggesting that she anticipated the pop artist's oeuvre), or that Richard Burton was typecast as Faustus since, in his later years, he had the look of a man "who had made the devil’s bargain and knew he had lost." And I can nod in appreciation at this writer's lament: "it is still easier to describe the tango or the cockpit take-off procedure for a 747 than to recount in detail an act of love." Then again, that was before the rear exhaust assembly arrived in the mail.
In these brief passages, Ballard makes me wish that he had taken a different path here. No, I don't want a more coherent or sanitized version of this rambling story— frankly I don’t think The Atrocity Exhibition could be turned into a successful novel, even with the most radical Michael Jackson-type of reconstructive surgery —but rather would have delighted in a series of essays on the pop culture figures Ballard skewers in this book. Instead of giving us lame fantasies about Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Ballard should have delivered a creative deconstruction akin to Barthes's Mythologies. He had the capability and bravado to do that, perhaps to an unparallelled degree among his generation. But, as it stands, the best sections of The Atrocity Exhibition are those snippets where the authorial voice shifts in the direction of non-fiction.
But if I prefer Ballard the aphorist, most of this book delivers Ballard the list-maker. Here's a taste (but don't swallow): "…the nasal prepuce of LBJ, the pudenda of Ralph Nader, Eichmann in drag, the climax of a New York happening: a dead child…" Sometimes the lists are numbered, thus giving an appearance of rigor to assortments that might seem random or haphazard, if it weren't for the disgust they manipulatively aim to engender. Check out this passage, for instance, and see if you can find any redeeming quality in it…other than its destiny as the winning entry in a 'gross out' contest:
"Dr Nathan pondered the list on his desk-pad. (1) The catalog of an exhibition of tropical diseases at the Wellcome Museum; (2) chemical and topographical analyses of a young woman’s excrement; (3) diagrams of female orifices: buccal, orbital, anal, urethral, some showing wound areas; (4) the results of a questionnaire in which a volunteer panel of parents were asked to devise ways of killing their own children…."
Ballard notes that he used free association techniques to come up with these lists, but I don’t believe him for a second. The clear goal is to embrace the transgressive, and in as disturbing a way as possible. One can sense his glee when describing obscenity charges against this book that led to prosecution in the UK. When Ballard's lawyer asked the author how he would explain to the court that his book was not obscene, he responded: "of course it was obscene, and intended to be so." Eventually the attorney told him in frustration: "Mr. Ballard, you will make a very good witness for the prosecution. We will not be calling you."
I will give Ballard this much credit. He aimed for obscenity, and he hit the mark. No one can ever take that away from him.
I've read many novels over the years, including more than a few that have been banned and burned by outraged citizens, but The Atrocity Exhibition was the only one that made me want to wash my hands after finishing it. I purchased my dog-eared copy used through the mail— the book is out-of-print (are you surprised?) and only second-hand paperbacks were available—but I often found myself wondering what kind of creepy person had owned this deliberately repulsive book before me. Sad to say, future owners will probably wonder the same about me, and go in turn to wash their hands.
But the person who, no matter how much scrubbing and rubbing, won't be able to wash off responsibility for this book is Mr. Ballard himself. So much more the pity. A good writer, and sometimes a great one, he did neither his readers nor his own reputation any favors with this grotesquely sensationalistic volume. An Atrocity Exhibition? Yes, well at least it's aptly named.