< 1975 Perry-Wilkie analysis of The Atrocity Exhibition

The Riverside Quarterly, Vol 6, No 3, August 1975

The Atrocity Exhibition

by Nick Perry and Roy Wilkie (University of Strathclyde)
 In 1970 Ballard published in the United Kingdom The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape, London). We are informed that sections of the book had already appeared in such journals as Ambit, Encounter, ICA Eventsheet, International Times and Transatlantic Review, which would at least indicate that Ballard was seeking a wider, or different, audience for his short stories. Secondly, the idiosyncratic style Ballard was developing in The Terminal Beach and The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race is now confirmed into a format where paragraphs are titled, incidents described apparently at random, and characters behave in strange ways without being strongly located. And whereas The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World have a conventional layout, one can, with the advantage of hindsight, identify the beginnings of this formal innovation in The Drought (The Burning World, in the U.S. and Canada). Its 42 chapters provide a clear contrast to the other novels, which are of similar length but consist of 8, 15, and 14 chapters respectively. Ballard himself has asserted his dissatisfaction with “linear systems of narrative”. In a Third Programme interview with George MacBeth, reprinted in The New S.F. (London: Hutchinson, 1969), he said:
“I’d been using in my novels and in most of my short stories a conventional kind of linear narrative, but I found that the action and events of the novels in particular were breaking down as I wrote them, that the characterisation, the sequence of events, were beginning to crystallise out into a series of shorter and shorter images and situations... What I feel I’ve done in these pieces of mine is to rediscover the present for myself -- I feel that one needs a non-linear technique, simply because our lives today are not conducted in linear terms. They are much more quantified, a whole stream of random events is taking place.” (p. 46)

Thirdly, Ballard had by 1970 acquired enough of a literary reputation to be the subject of “one-off” reviews in the columns of the “heavy” British Sunday papers and the “quality” dailies. Hitherto, with the creditable exception of Kingsley Amis’ appraisal of The Drowned World he had, like all other science-fiction authors, been reviewed along with a bundle of five or six other books. Science-fiction authors continue to be reviewed in batches but Ballard’s publication by Encounter, Ambit, and Transatlantic Review appeared to be his rite de passage into the ranks of the literati.
The first nine “stories” in this collection convey a feeling of continuity –in fact, read like this and not as individual items in different magazines and journals, they almost suggest notes for a novel -- by referring to characters, incidents, events, scenes, and images that appear and reappear. The central character is variously named Traven, Talbot, Tallis, Trabert, Travis, Talbert, Travers. (Some of these names had appeared in Ballard’s previously published work.) At the interview quoted earlier, Ballard commented:
“Yes, in effect they’re the same character, but their role in the stories is not to be characters in the sense that Scobie, let’s say, or any other character in the retrospective novel is a character, an identifiable human being rather like those we recognize among our friends, acquaintances, and so on.” (P. 47)

But, of course, in this case, informing us of what the character is not, in not very helpful in explaining in what sense they are characters. Later in the interview Ballard explains the following passage:

Kodachrome. Captain Kirby, M15 studied the prints. They showed: (1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half-hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, a seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1,500 C.C.; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right hand-prints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones. 10 Dr. Nathan he said: “And all these make up one picture?” (P. 49)
Ballard holds that:
“They make up a composite portrait of this man’s identity. in this story I was examining the particular role that a twentieth-century Messiah might take, in the context of mid-twentieth century life, and I feel that he would reappear in a whole series of aspects and relationships, touching an enormous range of events; that he wouldn’t have a single identity, in the sense that Jesus had -- he would have a whole multiplex of contacts with various points.” (P. 49)
There are a number of points here. There is, for example, the hoary problem of personal identity which relates directly to the main body of Ballard’s work. However, here the clues to such an identity are not, to put it mildly, very clear. What, for example, does the word “he” refer to? Radio-spectra from the quasar OTA 102 are not normally offered as defining characteristics of a being, even if the being portrayed is a twentieth-century Messiah. The list, however, is not totally inexplicable, for example “radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102” refers to a discovery of Soviet astronomers which was the subject of press comment during the mid-1960’s. The first reports referred to the probability that the emissions from the quasar provided evidence of an intelligence at work. Those claims were subsequently denied by the Soviet authorities. Or again, the “left and right hand-prints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones” is patently a reference to the crucifixion.
The central character, then, appears in many of these short stories in a composite role, and one might make a case for saying that the continual change in his name reflects his persisting uncertainties about his own identity.1 In the title story he appears as a scientist. In the second story, “The University of Death,” he is a lecturer who is suffering extreme stress and anxiety. In “The Assassination Weapon” he is a former H-bomber pilot. In “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” he is someone recovering from a mental breakdown. In “Notes from a Mental Breakdown” he is connected with space flights. In “The Great American Nude” he again appears as an instructor in an institute. In “The Summer Cannibals” no reference is made to any occupation. In “Tolerances of the Human Face” he is again referred to as working in the institute.
The activities of this central character constitute the core of the book, and scattered throughout the text are interpretations of his behavior. For example:
Talbot’s belief -- and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario -- is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event -- a liberation of sexual energy -- mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President. (p. 29)
In the world that Ballard’s hero explores nothing is quite what it seems. For Travis, his wife and the patients at the hospital are “as unreal as the war the film companies had restarted in Vietnam” (p. 11). When a psychiatrist can claim that “the fact that an event has taken place is no proof of its valid occurrence” (p. 46) what is being challenged is our conventional notions of what constitutes a fact, an event, proof and validity. This is confirmed in the next chapter (story?) when the psychiatrist steps down from a silent helicopter, and begins to speak to Tallis:
His mouth worked silently, eyes fixed on Tallis. He stopped and then began again with an effort, lips and jaw moving in exaggerated spasms as if he were trying to extricate some gumlike residue from his teeth. After several intervals, when he had failed to make a single audible sound, he turned and went back to the helicopter. Without any noise it took off into the sky. (P. 55)
A few pages later an exchange between a girl called Coma and Tallis includes the line, “I saw the helicopter this morning -- it didn’t land” (P. 58). Coma’s matter-of-fact acceptance of a woman’s dead body in the flat is acknowledged only by a glance at Tallis. His justification for the killing is his claim that “She was standing in the angle between the walls” (P. 58) and thus was “an unbearable intrusion into the time geometry of the room” (P. 57) 2. Such scenes and such prose are patently vulnerable to parody, but this silent helicopter and unconsummated conversation, like a film without the soundtrack, this matter-of-fact acceptance of a strange abstracted murder, are representative of the proliferation of bizarre scenes and events in The Atrocity Exhibition. Whereas in Ballard’s earlier work the questionable status of conventional notions of reality was often a conclusion to be drawn, it here becomes a self-evident starting point, an accepted “fact” rather than an emergent property.
In the relationship between subject and object, between the knower and what he knows, Ballard’s attention is on the subjective, on the knower. What he implies is that when advertising and the visual media in some meaningful sense are the world -- then the concomitant multiplicity of images provides a challenge to conventional notions of an objective reality that has clear-cut and tangible attributes. Both the emphasis on the visual media and The Atrocity Exhibition’s format indicate a tutelary nod in the direction of McLuhan, but a McLuhan transformed by a metaphysic that is peculiarly Ballard’s.
For him the importance of the media is that they make possible a meeting and a fusion between the private fantasy and the public event -- ”a coincidence between inner and outer landscapes.” The media transform the meaning of public events in ways that participants or onlookers might not recognize -- this much has become a commonplace. Ballard’s claim is that the private fantasy, the subjective, is not so much transformed as vindicated by the media. The disapprobation conventionally attached to subjectivism is thus misconceived, being predicated upon an unduly delimited conception of the objective for coping with the world in which we live. Although the book explores landscapes quite different from the steaming jungles and salt flats of his previous work, Ballard’s epistemology remains constant,
In The Drowned World Kerans has been appalled by the re-emergence of the drowned city, a horror given voice by Beatrice’s plaintive “It’s like some imaginary city of Hell” (p. 121). Kerans had flooded the lagoon in an effort to reconcile his “inner” mental state with the external environment. Although Kerens inhabited a post-disaster planet and an imaginary future, whereas Travis lives in a pre-disaster world and a fictional present (however interpreted), Ballard’s latest hero is driven by the same compulsions. His situation is identified in italics:
In the suburbs of Hell Travis walked in the flaring lights of the petrochemical plants. The ruins of abandoned cinemas stood at the street corners, faded hoardings facing them across the empty streets.” (P. 17)
Whereas the reappearance of London’s long submerged streets was a temporary phenomenon, Travis’ suburbs of Hell prove much more intransigent. Nature (and a few strategically placed sticks of dynamite) was on the side of Kerans. Travis has no such powerful ally, and is thus dependent upon the resources he can muster from within himself. A synopsis of the “psychologic” that this involves reads as follows:
1) The distinction between what is real and what is fictional in the outside world has broken down.
2) Owing to the absurdity of the world, the absence of fixed determinate values, the only relevant measure of meaning is subjective conviction. Traven is committed to a quest for some ontological fortress that can provide him with the certitude that the world cannot give.
3) He finds that certitude in the celebration of personal violence and sexual perversity.
4) Although the external world does not make sense, sense can be wrung from it by the selection and combination of apparently unrelated items in strange ways that confirm and exemplify Traven’s subjective certainties. The artifacts, imagery and public events of the external world thus become the raw materials from which Traven constructs a private world.
5) The continuing recalcitrance of the external world, (including other people), its (and their) refusal to yield to such inner logic both disturbs Traven and provides his guide for conduct. Inner and outer worlds must be reconciled, and only the outer world can be modified.
What the reader is offered, therefore, is a grand tour around the central character’s obsessions, expressed in what is almost a private code, a vocabulary of images organised in obscure combinations. Traven’s efforts to make sense of the world find their special expression in the creation of “scenarios.” The particular meaning assigned to that term by Herman Kahn and his associates no doubt accounts for its employment:
A scenario results from an attempt to describe in more or less detail some hypothetical sequence of events. Scenarios can emphasize different aspects of “future history”.3
Ballard is fond of such associations. It also suggests Genet. The sexual scenarios that are a specialty of the brothel in The Balcony have their counterpart in the world outside its walls. The private fantasies of Madam Irma’s patrons, their masquerades as bishop, general, or judge are an innocuous mirror of public life -- the “perversions” of the latter are much more disturbing, its illusions sustained at much greater cost. For Genet as for Ballard the meaning of public events, the trappings of responsibility must be re-evaluated and their connexion with private fantasies made manifest. Ballard’s scenarios consist of a collage of events, objects, media images, and characters, with the staging of car-crashes as the characteristic method of apocalyptic unification. The extent to which Ballard’s own sympathies lie with his central character is indicated by his readiness to act the part of Traven in a short film called Crash that the BBC screened in early 1971; during 1970 he had a sculpture exhibition at the London New Arts Laboratory Gallery on the theme of crashed cars; during 1969 he paid for a series of advertisements in Ambit that were similar to those which Trabert supposedly places in Vogue and Paris Match (p. 66). There was no doubt more then a hint Dali-style publicity involved in this latter enterprise (Ballard has elsewhere claimed that the painter is a genius), but the links between author and character are willingly displayed.
Throughout most of the stories is a psychiatrist Dr. Nathan, whose role is an interpretative one. Ballard said of him In the MacBeth interview:
“He appears as a psychiatrist. He relates to the other psychiatrists in the other stories, who serve the role of analysing the events of the narrative from the point of view of the clinical implications.” (p. 47)
By implication, Ballard is suggesting that Nathan’s analysis is correct -- at least in clinical terms. He is, however, a character about whom we are told very little, and yet references to his smoking habits occur time and time again. His “gold-tipped” taste is pointed out on at least six different occasions (pp. 9, 25, 65, 73, 104, 117) and further references to his smoking supplement these (pp 13, 34, 42, 65, 107, 114). When the stories were separately published this kind of thing wasn’t evident. When they are collected together and published as a novel it looks like an opportunity lost. If one wished to be coy about it, one could list the quotations, add a cigarette case and suggest that they make up a composite portrait of the psychiatrist’s identity. Certainly the irony of The Atrocity Exhibition is the shear sameness of it all. Nathan is not a well thought-out figure; his role is ambiguous and this emerges less as a function of the attempt to build a character, than of Ballard’s unwillingness to pass up an opportunity to plead Traven’s point of view. From the outset Nathan declares that he doubts whether the distinction between the doctor and patient is valid any longer (p. 13), but in the early sections of the book his interpretations of Travis’ behavior do maintain a measure of academic detachment and disassociation (see, for example, “In Death, Yes” (P. 34) and “Einstein” (P. 48)). In the fourth chapter/story he makes an effort to communicate with Tallis, an effort that is singularly unsuccessful (as the quotation from p. 55 given above indicates). But now he understands a little better, sees the world more nearly through Tallis’ own eyes (for example, p. 65). Thus after a scenario has been staged, “Dr. Nathan decided not to speak to him. His own identity would seem little more than a summary of postures, the geometry of an accusation” (p. 80). By the time we have reached the eighth chapter/story Nathan considers Traven’s “problem” is everyone’s problem, and appears to approve of, or at least acquiesce to his solution. Thus:
“Traven’s problem is how to come to terms with the violence that has pursued his life -- not merely the violence of accident and bereavement, or the horrors of war, but the biomorphic horror of our own bodies, the awkward geometry of the postures we assume. Traven has at last realized that the real significance of these acts of violence lies elsewhere, in what we might term ‘the death of affect.’ Consider all our most real and tender pleasures – in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction.” (p. 104)
Nathan’s subsequent argument that the Vietnam war does not repel us but in fact “appeals by virtue of its complex of polyperverse acts” (p. 107) and should, therefore, be recognised as socially beneficial, is an extension of this same theme.
Finally, chapters/stories 10, 11, 12, and 14 in the novel/collection express such ideas without the presence of a “character” at all. They employ the language of the scientific report, but each paragraph is prefigured by a phrase that refers to some aspect of Traven’s fantasies or fears. Each chapter is about three or four pages long, with Traven’s fantasies making up just one or at most two sentences. A typical paragraph begins:
The optimum auto disaster. Panels consisting of drive-in theatre personnel, students and middle-income housewives were encouraged to devise the optimum auto-disaster. A wide choice of impact modes was available, including roll-over, roll-over followed by head-on collision, multiple pile-ups and motorcade attacks. The choice of death postures included (1) normal driving position (2) sleep, rear seat (3) acts of intercourse, by both driver and passenger (4) severe anginal spasm... (pp. 138-9)
Harold Rosenberg provides a somewhat relevant comment:
America masks its terrors behind patterns of fact. Here the intolerable discloses its presence not in the grimaces of comedy or tragedy but in the bland citations of the scientific report. Since The War no novel or play has given body to the larger disturbances of the American consciousness. Literature, one hears, is dead, or too enfeebled to risk arduous adventures. Nevertheless, documents keep appearing that touch upon apprehensions equal to any in the history of men. Computations of the daily incidence of outlawed sex in America’s bedrooms; records of scientific sadism practiced by governments and their programmes to transform the will of individuals; estimates by atomic technicians of the flimsiness of the earth and of the natural shape of the human body. When phenomena of this order are explored in a work of the imagination, its author tends to be exiled to the colony of “morbid intellectuals.” Given the form of the report or survey, and authorized by the rhetoric of the professions, the most alarming topics overcome the handicap of their profundity and enter into the conversation of solid men of affairs.4
Ballard has recognised this tendency and is prepared to comment on it -- ”for Traven,” comments Nathan, “science is the ultimate pornography” (p. 48) -- for he shapes the authoritative character of such reports to his own purposes. By interweaving this style of narrative with the expression of Traven’s subjective concerns, Ballard is insisting that Traven is the “representative” for psychological processes which are characteristic of our time. For the reports claim to refer to the responses of, amongst others, mental patients, witnesses of the Kennedy assassination, soldiers, housewives, students, and psychotic children. Typically, they are written so as to confirm Dr. Nathan’s early assertion that the distinction between doctor and patient, between sane and insane, is no longer valid (p. 13) and his final claim that Traven is the forerunner of many others (p. 107). At times the language of the reports is almost interchangeable with what we have come to expect of Nathan in the first chapters. For example (P. 33):
These studies confirm that it is only in terms of a psychosexual module such as provided by the Vietnam war that the United States public can enter into a relationship with the world generally characterised by the term “love.”
Whether Nathan is supposed to be their author may appear to be largely idle speculation -- except that it would imply that the book is more of a unity than its form suggests. Perhaps the central character is supposed to have written them, for Nathan does mention “Talbot’s deliberate self-involvement in the narrative of the scenario” (p. 27) but then references to Nathan’s report writing also occur on several occasions (for example, p. 15 and p. 45).
A number of women appear and reappear throughout the book. The central character has a wife, Margaret, who appears in three of the stories; there is a colleague of Nathan’s who appears in six of them, four times as Catherine Austin, once as Claire Austin and once as Elizabeth Austin. Most frequent of all is Karen Novotny -- she is in seven. None of them is to be identified by any distinguishable physical characteristics, although the implication is that they are all reasonably attractive. They are, however, distinguished by the roles they play, and by their place in the fantasies of the central character. Margaret Traven emerges as a conventional wife caught up in a situation that she does not understand, initially unable to contact her husband and subsequently unable to communicate with him, irritated and confused by both Nathan (p. 68) and one Captain Webster whose role appears to be something akin to providing a watching brief on the whole business for the sake of the C.I.A.
Dr. Austin is Traven’s lover; he has an “undecided affair” with her (p. 11) in which she has the status of an object “an obscene masturbatory appliance” (p. 24). But she is also a doctor, with the detachment that such an occupation implies, as well as having become the lover of Koester, a research student (cf. p. 79). (Koester disturbs Traven not only because he is Catherine’s lover, but also because he is creating “scenarios” of his own -- in particular, a kind of 20th century crucifixion in which Traven has the leading part. Koester is a research assistant who has learned well.)
Dr. Austin apparently finds it difficult to reconcile her roles, a difficulty given expression by the changes in her Christian name:
Avoiding Claire Austin’s embarrassed attempt to embrace him he stepped on to the lawn below the drive. (P. 93)
Standing across the room from Elizabeth Austin, who watches him with guarded eyes, he hears himself addressed as “Paul.” (P. 115)

If Margaret represents the wife who doesn’t understand, and Catherine Austin an unfaithful academic mistress, Karen Novotny, the third woman of these stories, represents the sensual and the erotic.
Talbot followed her about the apartment drawing chalk outlines on the floor around her chair, around the cups and utensils on the breakfast table, as she drank her coffee, and lastly around herself:
(1) sitting, in the posture of Rodin’s “Thinker,” on the edge of the bidet, (2) watching from the balcony as she waited for Koester to catch up with them again, (3) making love to Talbot on the bed. He worked silently at the chalk outlines, now and then rearranging her limbs.” (P. 32)
Their period in the apartment together had been one of almost narcotic domesticity. In the planes of her body, in the contours of her breasts and thighs, he seemed to mimetize all his dreams and obsessions.” (p. 64)
Typically, it is Karen who picks him up in an empty hotel cinema after a conference on space medicine, or on a motorway, or at a beach planetarium, or on top of a car park, or at, a demonstration cinema on facial surgery.
In identifying what these three women “represent,” we must bear in mind one point. It is what they represent to the central character that is important, and their places in his pattern of obsession. All of them are “killed” at least once, Karen Novotny most frequently of all, and both these deaths and the curious way in which their sexual activities are described are purportedly explicable in terms of Traven’s efforts to make sense of the world -- or more precisely his world. For example:
Amatory elements: nil. The act of love became a vector in an applied geometry. (P- 75)
This is explained by Nathan thus:
“Talbot has accepted in absolute terms the logic of sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space.” (p. 78)
There are a few other “characters’ besides those mentioned, Kline, Coma, and Xero, for example -- a trinity who appear to be wholly the product of Traven’s fantasies. They usually appear together and enjoy no objective status independent of the central character’s perception, creatures of the imagination employed in, and the expressions of, his strange purposes:
A watching Trinity. Personae of the unconscious: Xero: run hot with a million programmes, this terrifying figure seemed to Trabert like a vast neural switchboard... Coma; this beautiful but mute young woman, madonna of the time-ways, surveyed Trabert with maternal eyes.
Kline: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time? – Matta” (p. 64)
It is interesting to note that a character called Coma made her first appearance in a story that Ballard first published in 1960, namely The Voices of Time -- included in The Four Dimensional Nightmare (Victor Gollancz, London, 1963) -- and in the process of coming to terms with the strangeness of The Atrocity Exhibition one gradually becomes aware of its continuity with that earlier tale. In that story Coma relates to two other characters, Powers the surgeon who builds an enormous mandala, and his former patient Kaldren who is preoccupied with documenting the rundown of the universe and collects and collates radio messages from outer-space. Coma says of him to Powers:
“Sometimes I feel I’m just another of his insane terminal documents.”
“What are those?”
“Haven’t you heard? Kaldren’s collection of final statements about homo sapiens. The complete works of Freud, Beethoven’s blind quartets, transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, an automatic novel, and so on.”5
While she is talking Powers doodles an elaborate mandala. Kaldran subsequently says of these documents:
“They’re end prints, Power's final statements, the products of total fragmentation. When I’ve got enough together I’ll build a new world for myself out of them.” (ibid., P. 32)
In The Atrocity Exhibition the collector of terminal documents and the ”builder of mandalas” is Traven, and Coma’s complaint about her role in relation to Kaldren might with justice be made by all of Traven’s women. (Cf. the breakdown of the doctor/patient distinction.) In The Voices of Time the mandala was not a satisfactory vehicle for the ideas it was supposed to express (the resolution of psychic, temporal, and cosmic confusion. In the more successful Terminal Beach story Ballard found a pre-established mandala – in The Atrocity Exhibition he substitutes for the mandala the notion of the scenario with the car-crash as its focal point. What is still at work is the quest for some kind of mystical unity:
“This reluctance to accept the fact of his own consciousness” Dr. Nathan wrote, “may reflect certain positional difficulties in the immediate context of time and space. The right angle spiral of a stairwell may remind him of similar biases within the chemistry of the biological kingdom. This can be carried to remarkable lengths--for example ‘ the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor...” (P. 15)
The Atrocity Exhibition is by any standard a strange book but it does not represent a total break with his previous work. The form is different and the specific elements that now make up the landscape are technological much more often then they are natural -- Ballard is here concerned to come to terms with technology. The imaginary natural landscapes of the future have become the artificial landscapes of the present. And yet what is the “real” continues to be problematic. As Karen Novotny explains, “We’re all in the movies.”
1) Cf. M. Rocheach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1964).
2) Occasional flashes of humour do occur, as in the suggestion that a botched Second Coming might be filmed as Fellini’s “1 1/2.”
3) Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, London, 1962, (p. 143).
4) “The Orgamerican Phantasy,” The Tradition of the New, London: Thames and Hudson, 1962; Paladin 1970, p. 232.
5) The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965) p. 25.