Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2012 January 13 • Friday

My chronological survey of J. G. Ballard continues with The Atrocity Exhibition, which I read a few months ago.

An author's note actually suggests not reading the book from cover to cover but flipping through it until a paragraph catches your eye. Read that paragraph and see if any others around it also interest you. The note concludes by noting that if you do that, "you will be reading the book in the way it was written".

Each chapter functions as a miniature novel and each paragraph begins with a boldface phrase. For instance, here's the first paragraph of Chapter Three, "The Assassination Weapon", begins.

Thoracic Drop. The spinal landscape, revealed at the level of T-12, is that of the porous rock towers of Tenerife, and of the native of the Canaries, Oscar Dominguez, who created the technique of decalomania and so exposed the first spinal landscape. The clinker-like rock towers, suspended above the silent swamp, create an impression of profound anguish. The inhospitability of this mineral world, with its inorganic growths, is relieved only by the balloons flying in the clear sky. They are painted with names: Jackie, Lee Harvey, Malcolm. In the mirror of this swamp there are no reflections. Here, time makes no concessions.

The idea of the spinal landscape first came up in The Drowned World, I think. This is a sedate paragraph by the standards of The Atrocity Exhibition but it conveys a few of the important themes: celebrity and violent death, an inversion of the inner self so that the outer world seems to be part of the body.

The book takes a shotgun approach to these ideas, alternating between recurring characters, who sometimes have different names. One is called Vaughan a name that will reappear in Ballard's next novel, Crash, along with much else from The Atrocity Exhibition. My edition contains commentary by Ballard, in which he reveals that Vaughan is the same character in both books.

As with a lot of Ballard, I'm not sure what to make of this book. Any attempt to explain it would probably be as glum as the "explanations" of abstract painting, for example.

What's compelling about it is the combination of a clinical writing style—it's no surprise that Ballard studied medicine—with outrageous and fantastical metaphors and similes. Consider some of the deaths that fascinate the character of Travers.

"… Marilyn Monroe: the death of her moist loins; the falling temperature of her rectum embodied in the white rectilinear walls of the twentieth-century apartment; Jacqueline Kennedy: the notional death, defined by the exquisite eroticism of her mouth and the logic of her leg stance; Buddy Holly: the capped teeth of the dead pop singer, like the melancholy dolmens of the Brittany coastline, were globes of milk, condensations of his sleeping mind."

The Atrocity Exhibition seems to present Ballard immersing himself fully in his fascinations and creating a series of works as painters do. Crash will be the fruit of his labors, a mature, distilled and remorselessly composed work, no less outrageous but far more concentrated.

But what's it about? Well, what was Picasso's blue period about? In both cases the title tells you everything worth knowing until you experience the work itself. The chapter titles of The Atrocity Exhibition offer other clues: "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe", "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy", "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race"

Ballard's commentary is also quite enlightening. At one point he notes that he has tried to describe "the psychology" of "the unique vocabulary and grammar of late-20th-century life" in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Elsewhere, a reflection on Ralph Nader, whom he decribes as "the first of the eco-puritans", Ballard proclaims that "too few things are bad for us, and one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes". In a comment on the same chapter he writes, "Needless to say, I believe there should be more sex and violence no TV, not less. Both are powerful catalysts for change in areas where change is urgent and overdue".

I seem to remember that somewhere, sometime, Ballard responded to fears of nuclear proliferation by saying that there weren't enough nuclear weapons.

Also hidden in Ballard's annotations are thoughts that seem like great story ideas, such as: "During the Apollo flights I half-hoped that one of the spacecraft would return with an extra crew-man on board, wholly accepted by the others, who would shield him from a prying world".

The Atrocity Exhibition strikes me as a collection of related capsules, many of them ingenious and exciting, all of them unusual and quintessentially Ballard.