Science Fiction Eye, Number 8, Winter 1991. Illustrations by Ferret.

Atomized Artifacts

J.G. Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition and the End of History


The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard's most recondite book and his most controversial, attacked for being both maddeningly obscure and perfectly obscene. It would seem at first that the qualities would be mutually exclusive -- how could something provoke both incomprehension and arousal?

It helps to remember that a great deal of censorship and attempted censorship arises from a profound sense of alienation from subject matter -- its incomprehensibility as a text to be read and assimilated into the body of knowledge in the reader in particular, or in the accepted canon of the discipline or genre in general. By text, I mean anything from a billboard to a peanut butter jar to a film to a book proper.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a text of alienation on a number of levels: the book's reliance on technology as a method for communicating its narrative; the acceptance of and indulgent in aberrant sexualities; its political devaluations, and overall view of society as a labyrinth of fragmented struggles and cynical -- and sensual -- excesses. In the interest of context, it would probably be beneficial to note the cultish belief that put the heavy metal band Judas Priest on trial [in a civil suit] for the suicide of one of their fans.

First published in 1970, Atrocity is made up of fifteen "condensed novels" (Ballard's term), some of which had previously appeared as compacted short stories in various adventuresome SF and fiction magazines. One of these sections became notoriously famous very quickly -- "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy," published in Ambit in 1967. This piece flew up the nose of Randolph Churchill (son of Winston), and a London Arts Council grant disappeared (sound familiar?). Atrocity's first American edition so freaked its publisher Nelson Doubleday that, driven to destructive rage by one of the chapter titles -- "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" -- he ordered the entire print run atomized. And this occurred when Reagan was merely governor of California. His ascension to the iconic status of president was still in the future.

The book was briefly available two years later under the Grove Press imprint, retitled Love and Napalm: Export USA, but possibly due to the title change and the time period (late Vietnam war), or Grove's notoriously erratic print maintenance, it was deleted shortly thereafter. Consequently in the U.S. (the book remained continually in print in Great Britain) the book became a hard-to-find cult item until recently, thanks to this handsome volume from those ultra cool folks at RE/Search.

But before turning to this immaculately produced artifact, a little (very little) background for those few reading this who are uninformed as to Mr. Ballard's life and work. Those familiar with Empire of the Sun -- either J.G.'s autobiographical fiction, or Steven Spielberg's film -- will know that Ballard, a British citizen, was born in Shanghai in 1930, spent fifteen years in China, and was confined to a prison camp by the Japanese during WWll. He later studied medicine at Cambridge University in England, where he first began writing science fiction. His first commercially published short story, "The Violent Noon," appeared in 1951, though he didn't begin publishing regularly until 1956, when his work garnered critical acclaim. By the 60s he was a significant figure in the ground-breaking world of British SF and was co-opted into the "New Wave" movement. Ballard's early novels -- The Drowned World, The Drought, The Wind From Nowhere, The Crystal World -- were mood-drenched, bleak, end-of-the-world variations, written in a morbid, lapidary style which set him apart from most genre practitioners of the time. His characters were often elusive, his plots attenuated, but his scenery, lighting, perception of movement and placement of objects within a particular place all seemed to add up to ontological evil. A predecessor, in terms of mise en scene, would be Sartre's Nausea.

Ballard's short stories were, to a point, Kafkaesque. Though his impulse had been to blur more and more the separation between object and subject in a world of victims and victimizers (a nod here from Ballard to the paintings of Salvador Dali); nature and artifice; and then go beyond that to where Kafka's proto-fascist bureaucracy is made irrelevant by the microchip -- which silently rewires our nervous systems, dreams and realities. His short story collection, The Terminal Beach, contains both the societal arabesques and the mod, psychotech, political nightmares of his later non-genre fiction: the trilogy of postmodern mayhem that includes Crash, High-Rise and Concrete Island.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard's work taken to its extreme. Characterization, plot, narrative -- all are rendered prismatically. A shard of meaning connects, or doesn't (in postmodem critical terminology, the terms displacement, dislocation and rupture come to mind) with surrounding sentences. What may normally, in narrative fiction, seem trivial -- a character's physical stance, a tier of balconies outside a hotel -- seems loaded with significance, while grotesque and graphic death scenes are written as flat, unaffecting occurrences: Celebration. 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. The dismembered bodies of Karen Novotny and himself moved across the morning landscape, recreated in a hundred crashing cars, in the perspectives of a thousand concrete embankments, in the sexual postures of a million lovers. [TAE p. 28]

The language is a confluence of medical text turgidity -- the most recurring word is "musculature" and poetic/rhetorical imagery. The characters move about in a landscape of pop icons who have died in automobiles (JFK, James Dean) or those whose deaths are media events (Marilyn Monroe). The protagonist whose presence links the chapters, is a shrink who has willingly descended into psychosis. He is involved in various attempts to rearrange his perceptions in order that he may make sense of that sad, contemporary cliché "senseless death" -- riots, industrial accidents, murders, vehicular manslaughters -- by using information from his hallucinations and modem technological developments to start the end of history: WWIII.

In this bewildering world, violent imagery has fatefully infiltrated the amphitheater of the body and the libido; car crashes become potent sexual fantasies. The Atrocity Exhibition was the "gene," as Ballard himself puts it, from which his eros-drenched and terrifying novel Crash would be born. In the aforementioned "Jacqueline Kennedy" chapter, the metaphor is breached and people begin to have physical sex with their autos: an interesting comment on libidinal economy, the power equations inherent in advertising, and the nature of technological power itself. Involuntary orgasms during the cleaning of automobiles. Studies reveal an increasing incidence of sexual climaxes among persons cleaning automobiles. In many cases the subject remained unaware of the discharge of semen across the polished paintwork and complained to his spouse about birds. One isolated case reported to a psychiatric after-care unit involved the first definitive sexual congress with a rear exhaust assembly. It is believed that the act was conscious. Consultations with manufacturers have led to modifications of rear trim and styling, in order to neutralize these erogenous zones, or if possible transfer them to more socially acceptable areas within the passenger compartment. The steering assembly has been selected as a suitable focus for sexual arousal. [TAE pp. 89-901

The Atrocity Exhibition doesn't end, it continues through its cataclysmic journey until it stops. The tone of the text is the same as at the beginning. The mannered, droning voice that narrates the last section without the slightest waver or mistake is at least an exact replica of the one who started. After all that has transpired, been destroyed, posited, mutilated, fucked, erased and violated, this becomes the most horrifying prospect of all to face that although everything has changed irrevocably (in the text and for the reader), it remains more the same than ever before.

This edition has been addended by four short pieces not in the original, most notably "The Secret History of World War 3," a relatively straightforward parody of those intertwining post-Vietnam psychic balms, Reaganism and media trivialization. I would, however, argue with the premise here that people were somehow duped by Reaganism -- many people, you know who you are, you fuckers, wanted it explicitly. There's also much enlightening (and new) annotation from Ballard in the margins, opposite photos and illustrations: dramatic architectural abstractions, med-text neo-realism, etc. That this book was ahead of its time is clear, in narrative innovation, political insight, and psycho and social observation. Whether it is still, is now on the floor for debate.

Richard C. Walls was a regular staff writer for the venerable Creem magazine, is the jazz editor for the Music Independent, and is a regular contributor to Spin, Musician, and Downbeat. Thom Jurek contributed to the expansion of this article from its original form -- published in Detroit's Metro Times, September, 1990.

Pornography is under attack at present, thanks in part to the criminal excesses of kiddy porn and snuff movies, and to our newly puritan climate -- the fin de siécle decadence that dominated the 1890s, and which we can expect to enliven the 1990s, may well take the form of an aggressive and over-the-top puritanism. A pity, I feel, since the sexual imagination is unlimited in scope and metaphoric power, and can never be successfully repressed. In many ways pornography is the most literary form of fiction -- a verbal text with the smallest attachment to external reality, and with only its own resources to create a complex and exhilarating narrative. I commend Susan Sontag's brave 1969 essay ("The Pornographic Imagination"), though I would go much further in my claims. Pornography is a powerful catalyst for social change, and its periods of greatest availability have frequently coincided with times of greatest economic and scientific advance. -- J.G. Ballard, from the annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition.