The Atrocity Exhibition
by J.G. Ballard
Called a novel, this is actually an assemblage of short texts which collectively make up an excoriation of the barrenness of the modern world. It’s tied together not with narrative — though a kind of dream-story can be partially discerned in its early chapters — but with recurring motifs. The assassination of John F. Kennedy; automobile accidents and fatalities; the human body, dissected and anatomised; quasars and the observation of the sky. There’s a refusal to be bound by chronological time, an apparent attempt to give a kind of cubist view — but of what, is unclear. One of the characters is said to be attempting to start World War III in a “revolt against the present continuum of time and space”, which is as good a clue to the book as any.
So this is a radically experimental work. The text is cut up, glosses itself, rewrites itself. Words and phrases recur hypnotically (“the planes of her face”). Characters change names, die and then recur with no immediately evident explanation.
If it weren’t so short, it’d be unbearable. If it weren’t as tight as it is, it’d be unbearable. If Ballard’s language wasn’t as taut and controlled as it is, it’d be unbearable.
But it is all these things, and so it’s weirdly compelling. You have to re-read it, perhaps ideally re-reading it out of order. You have to be able to hold all the different parts of it in your head, I think, which is largely impossible even for a novel as short as this; in such a way you can begin to pick out the connections between the different parts of the book.
Is it ultimately meaningful? I think so. It’s intriguing in its use of language, for example. And in the way it subjugates form to theme; it’s a fine example of the modernist tendency to express (what was perceived to be) a fractured world through a fractured structure. It’s intriguing that it feels of its time. In part that’s because it consciously uses elements of the 1960s as a source for its imagery. But it’s also because that sense of a fractured world, in which human beings are alone within their skulls and cut off from those around them, seems slightly outdated in a twenty-first century defined by the internet. Our anxieties and stresses have become other than they were. That doesn’t make the book outdated; it means that it’s easier to see as a product of a specific moment. Ballard’s a good enough writer that this is still a living book. The anxieties of his time therefore speak to ours, and we can see ourselves in them. The book uses elements of its moment to speak to times beyond its own; which could be said to be the point of literature. In a different way than at its publication, the book takes us out of ourselves. Which is, to me, the point of reading.