“For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries, the unique creation of the pudenda of Ralph Nader.”
Forewarning: The following article contains spoilers.
Where do you start with J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition? The author himself suggested anywhere. Quite literally open the book at any page, flick through it until you find a paragraph with a title you like, and go from there. It runs along the same thinking as the cut up technique popularised by William S. Burroughs, who inspired Ballard. Burroughs actually provides the introduction to the copy I have. It’s experimental through and through and it doesn’t blush about it. You know you’re dealing with something different from the get go.
I first read it in my early twenties. A professor recommended that I read Ballard, Spanbauer, Hempel, etc. My writing reminded him of theirs. In retrospect I’m flattered. The Atrocity Exhibition stayed with me. Something about it was entirely unsettling, but I had trouble putting my finger on precisely why. Skip forward several years and it was still stuck in the back of my mind like a splinter. So when it came time for my book group to draw up a list of books for 2017, I decided to put that one down. I wanted to pick it up again and see if I could get anything more out of it a second time and with a few more years behind me. I also simply wanted to see what my friends would do with it. So I gave them the disjointed oil stained vulva that is The Atrocity Exhibition.
The Atrocity Exhibition follows Travis down the exhaust pipe of his mental breakdown in a Picasso meets Brazzers dystopia. He’s trying to start a self-contained psychological World War III. The purpose of this is incomprehensible, but it does seem to serve as the initial vector for the prevailing themes.
The structure of the book proves intriguing. Ballard describes it as being made up of ‘condensed novels’. The rest of us would call them paragraphs. There is some argument to be made that the title is deserved, but it flies in the face of all identifiable aspects of a novel to suggest that it can be justified and so in the end it just sounds pretentious. The argument that each of these individually titled segments can stand on their own falls apart when you come across, with consistent regularity, another section that makes little to no sense without context. They can quite easily be contained to a comment on a thought, some observation of another character, or simple description. No one is identified, no context given – alone it would be nonsensical. It would be fine in a continuous format, but if you’re aiming to create what essentially boils down to continuity driven micro fiction, then a story requires more than that. As for even standing on their own – well, they don’t. They more often than not tie into the preceding and following paragraphs. Ignore the aggrandised title.
On the note of Ballard’s suggestion to hop from paragraph to paragraph at random: don’t do that either. Especially if you’ve never read it before. It’s hard enough to get to grips with this book just reading from cover to cover. There is a chronology to it, the chapters and paragraphs follow on from one another in a sagging stagger from start to finish as Traven’s mental state becomes increasingly unhinged. It’s a bizarre, confused, and unsettling journey, but not once did I get the impression that Ballard had pulled a Slaughterhouse Five and jumped around the timeline.
The most consistent problem with The Atrocity Exhibition is simply the content. I went from cover to cover both times I read it, but I still can’t tell you for certain that I didn’t read the same paragraph multiple times over. I didn’t backtrack, but I consistently ran across the thought that one section in chapter 2 or 3 looks much like another in chapter 7 or 8. I wasn’t alone in this. Ballard’s protagonist shuffles from apartment to car crash to non-descript suburbia and around again ad nauseam, ruminating on geometry, social events, and sex. It’s not without purpose or reason as Talbot does not differentiate between the curve of a thigh and a bit of roofing. As a study in odd perspectives, it’s second to none but it’s not so much a story as it is a long corkscrew down an obsession with mathematical abstracts, decontextualisation, and pop culture repeating like an Andy Warhol filtered through a Gauntanamo Bay kaleidoscope.
Talbot’s aim to decontextualize everything resembles a sort of heat death of the universe scenario. This is where the structure of the book compliments the content. The fractured incoherence is disorientated and confused. The cyclical themes and sporadic jumps between characters and view points all mirror his mind and its endless looping around mathematics and pop culture. It is a fantastic and effective method of putting you into his headspace. At the same time it’s a car crash for a narrative. Picking through the jagged scrap of the plot I found characters blurring into one another, scenes and themes becoming so homogeneous and indistinct that they are ultimately irrelevant. This may be a deliberate play to the structure, but it also destroys any semblance of drama. I’ve written before about the necessity for peaks and troughs in a narrative. It’s hardly a revolutionary concept, but Ballard almost completely does away with it. Perhaps I’m too much of a literary philistine to appreciate the stylistic nuance or some such, but in experimenting with structure he has gutted the story. The narrative is a straight downward line, there is no point at which you are wondering what happens next: you always already know. Then again, the plot lines are buried beneath the rambling prose in any case, so it’s difficult to say precisely how much any of it matters.
When the plotlines do emerge they don’t go very far. Doubly so for the brief moments where sub plots seem to exist. The narrative parameters are more less defined by Toboggan’s mental state, which makes concessions to nothing beyond mathematics, pop culture, and sex. As such, that makes up the vast semi-coherent majority of the book. It’s extremely interesting in theory, but in practice the obsessive circling prevents it from going anywhere worthwhile. Maybe Marilyn Monroe’s left nipple at a thirty-degree angle to her sternum, sodomising JFK reimagined as a Mercedes-Benz, under the succulent curve of a glistening bridge arch is an interesting concept the first time. It has lost all novelty by the thirty-fifth.
When notable plot points do come up, it’s all very sudden and short lived, and then they are submerged again just as fast. There are characters that feel like they should have been doing more, they were actively invested in Timbuktu’s problems, but none of them seem to have any agency or ability to impact on him. They follow him around and then they disappear. It’s not like you couldn’t filter them through his distorted mental space, but instead Ballard has them erecting billboards and reconstructing car crashes, through which Traven wanders until he’s had enough musing on the angle of a bent fender and shuffles off to compare it to the slant of an Ikea desktop.
Whenever the characters do anything there’s no significance. At times he may as well be the only character in the novel. That seems to be part of the point; the world is reminiscent of a nihilistic paradise. The problem is that nihilism doesn’t remove any and all response to every instance of stimuli. People respond to things regardless of philosophical setting. If they do not because of the setting then there’s no point to them being there. The only person who seems to respond to anything is Travers’ wife, and her small internal conflicts were engaging. Tombola is a write off and nobody else has any investment. The wife’s conflicts, predictably, don’t amount to anything, but she’s practically hysterical in comparison to the rest of the cast. You can contrast unresponsive setting with responsive characters and vice versa, but you can’t just have a continual blank space accompanied by narration. These people don’t and it makes for a book in which nothing is allowed to happen. Even the moments that should be focal points of drama are bled of any impact. Novotny takes up a great deal of book space as a walking, thinking, elastic concubine equally as detached as Travis and yet there’s no comment on that. There’s no interaction or friction. Despite being dragged across every motorway in the States, Novotny remains utterly unfazed by anything around her. Koester steps out of the background for the space of a chapter, there’s a quick burst of drama and then it just sloughs away. There’s very little to grasp here. Melodrama is bad. No drama is worse.
As previously mentioned, it’s difficult to tell who’s who some of the time. Many of them are so undeveloped that they blur together. Some are called different things at different times without contextualisation. That works for Tuberculosis because we spend most of the time in his head. The background characters are otherwise unimportant for the most part. Save for a few of them, who reappear with enough frequency and do enough to justify their existence, the cast is largely forgettable or even unidentifiable. Who they are and what they are doing is consumed by the continuing torrent of psychobabble. I can’t remember at which point in the book it is made clear to us that Koester and Vaughn are the same person. It may well have been, but it was clearly not something worth remembering. He pops up for a brief abortive love-triangle-esque sub plot with Maybe-Maybe-Not-Novotny and Takes-Two-To-Tango, and then fades into the background again. I can’t tell you why he was relevant or what his purpose was. Furthermore, Koester only seems to be Vaughn when he’s having a Mr. Hyde moment, but in all other side references he is Koester. I would assume I was just being dense, but I can’t remember a description to link the two names together – they exists as separate entities. Vaughn’s sudden violent and potentially rapey turns are ripe for expansion and exploration. But not to Ballard. Continuing the trend: They go nowhere. Even after his exciting bit of agency and drama he goes back to doing not much. On the rare occasions that we get significant action in The Atrocity Exhibition we are left with no consequence and it kills the desire to keep going.
Speaking of which, Travis kills Novotny. It’s a spoiler but it’s so insignificant that it almost isn’t. She presumably dies, but then springs back up like a comedy clown in the subsequent chapter. I’d have suggested that maybe she’s just another hallucination, but other characters can see her, too. The best I’ve got is that he either didn’t kill her, or every instance of Novotny is a different woman given the same name by Tiramisu. The problem is that there’s nothing to indicate that any of this is the case. So what’s the point? Every time the hint of plot development appears it is attacked by the Hounds of Tindalos and never seen again. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it’s deflating: The longer the book goes on the more of slog it becomes.
And then there’s Dr. Nathan. Dr. Nathan is the exposition man. He is there to give people some context and explain what’s happening. Without Dr. Nathan, even Ballard seemed to realise his book was all but impenetrable. His second role is to project sex onto everyone and everything. His assistant stands with her legs apart? She wants the D. A man in the hall lights a cigarette? He wants the D. Standing on a rooftop observing a pedestrian woman walk along the road? She is so sex crazed that she’s practically leaving a trail! It goes from creepy to absurd and just ends up being amusing. I can only assume that Ballard was deliberately trying to illustrate the idea that Dr. Nathan is projecting so hard he could rent himself out as an IMAX cinema.
It’s not hard to see how some could view Ballard’s novel as merely the work of a controversy peddler, equipped with some books on maths, medical anatomy, and architecture, sprinkled with cultural references to tie into the time period and hit a few nerves. While The Atrocity Exhibition certainly is trying to hit some nerves, it’s not merely a banal blending of sex, violence and smarter-than-thou cultural references. Pretentious, perhaps, but not soulless. For a start, the book isn’t actually that explicit. If he was going for shock he could have done so with ease. Instead, almost everything is given via impression and suggestions, leaving you to fill in the blanks. You’re the filth; don’t blame the book. But in taking the human and compartmentalising it until it is inhuman there are reflections of consumer and celebrity culture: An uncomfortably accurate illustration of how a person can be segmented into a dozen or more separate parts – hair, face, thighs, chest, back, arms, etc – and stuck on a hundred thousand billboards for people to digest. We have unwittingly become products in Ballard’s world. Arguably, since its publication in 1970, that fiction has long since become a reality. There are also nods to Vietnam and the unfiltered media bombardment that accompanied it. Like the book, the Vietnam War saw a continuous escalation of confusion and violence. News outlets were more than happy to pump it into homes across America, the repeated exposure numbing viewers to what was previously overwhelming. With all of that said, much of this book is heavily rooted in its own era. Unless you lived through the 60s, or you’re already well versed in the history, the constant references will most likely be lost on you, which directly inhibits what tenuous threads of interest there are to grasp. Nobody wants to stop reading every five minutes to research yet another personality, media reference, or historical event.
When I try to come up with key events in The Atrocity Exhibition, none of the ones that stand out amount to much. I’m not asking for Broadway fireworks, but I would have preferred a journey worth taking. Every now and then subplot ambles out from under an overpass and looks like it means business. Inevitably it just pisses onto the nearest vertical surface and shuffles out of sight again. Travis and Koester are doing something interesting all of a sudden, what’s going to happen next? Nothing. Jackie Kennedy is sodomising the Royal Albert Hall and Traven is trying to make that mean something. Even when Xero and Klein appear, Ballard refuses to seize on the opportunity for something interesting. By that point, yet another blurry tangent about geometric death tantra is as exciting as floorboards. These two characters, of all the opportunities, were ripe for using as an expansion and further exploration of Traven’s mind – they are his hallucinations! But Ballard doesn’t do it. Instead we just keep slumping inexorably forwards to no great purpose.
We end more or less where we started and it feels hollow. It’s just presented in a less coherent form than what it starts out with. While an ending like that isn’t a bad thing, the journey doesn’t do enough to make it feel significant. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho didn’t ‘solve’ anything in the end, but there was just enough response and consequence to Patrick Bateman’s actions that it left you with something concrete. I like stories or scenarios that take something enjoyable, comforting, or safe, and turn into something that is not. That is the type of thing The Atrocity Exhibition excels at. Unfortunately it plays the same note too many times and the effect wears off fast.
The World War III thing gets lost after a couple of chapters, I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s long forgotten by the time these Xero and Klein show up. Aside from that it’s just more dissociative lists, deliberately disconnecting human experience from itself, reducing it to a collection of stock build-your-own modules. That way of viewing sex as a series of interlocking and shifting angles wasn’t something I’d considered before and it’s uncomfortable to do so. Probably because it’s not that far a leap in perspective. We’re all aware that a human is, more or less, an assemblage of shapes. We just don’t normally think of ourselves in those terms. To take that depersonalisation and throw it into one of the most personal situations you can find yourself in leaves a jagged impression. Who’d have thought you could do that to an orgasm?
Much as I’ve ranted at this book, I don’t hate it. It still stays with me. It’s perhaps trying to be too clever for its own good. I’m glad I read it again; it hasn’t lost its bizarre charm. I do enjoy the end result. Everything comes together as a whole in a distorted oil and semen smear of words and impressions. A dirty collage built up from hundreds of inconsequential frustrating scraps. But I’m trying to find a reason to suggest it and I can’t. It’s nice but it’s the literary equivalent of blue balls. It’d be disingenuous to claim there isn’t a climax, but by the time I got to it I wasn’t interested anymore.
Could you conceivably condense this collection into a less repetitive and tedious read? Yes. But you’d lose something in doing so. The obsessiveness is the point. Perhaps it’s simply a flawed idea or has to be taken only as impressionist literature. That, in essence, is what The Atrocity Exhibition boils down to. A free fall down the spread legged entry into the engulfing hole of a fractal vagina as concept of world, reflected in a hundred thousand erogenous curves, crumpled bonnets, and apartment corners.