Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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:

Exposed Placenta

An Unpleasant Orifice

Zapruder Frame 235

The Optimum Wound Profile

Obscene Mannequin

Marriage of Freud and Euclid

The Exploding Madonna

Che as Pre-Pubertal Figure


Related Essays
Crash by J.G. Ballard
The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard


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.  

Or

“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.  

Or

“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.  

Or

“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.  


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.  His
newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
The Atrocity Exhibition

by J.G. Ballard
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A Clockwork Orange

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Little, Big

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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Some of Your Blood

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Lord of Light

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