Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Atrocity Exhibition

The Atrocity Exhibition, by J.G. Ballard
1970, 157 pp.

I have no idea what to make of this book. It consists of an aggregation of the so-called "condensed novels" J.G. Ballard wrote and published, mostly in New Worlds, between 1966 and 1969. These "condensed novels" are a paragraph of strange text, led off by a short, bold-faced title. At first I noted down the particularly crazy examples of these ("Transliterated Pudenda," "Eurydice in a Used-car Lot," "Dissociation: Who Laughed at Nagasaki?") but then gave up in despair. Had I continued I would have ended up transcribing the entire book. Several of these paragraphs are grouped together into a section ("The Universe of Death," "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "The Summer Cannibals," etc.) which vaguely communicate a story. As the reader wades through these lunatic, often disturbing prose snapshots, patterns begin to emerge. There is a central figure, variously called Travis, Talbot, Traven, Tallis, Trabert, Travers--the "T-figure," if you will, apparently inspired by reclusive, mysterious novelist B. Traven. T was a bomber pilot, or imagined himself one, but was in a crash, died for a while on the operating table, and came back with "something missing." He is obsessed with finding linkages between things, mainly using visual media, and wants to re-kill John F. Kennedy in a way that "makes sense," apparently repelled, like Don DeLillo and Martin Amis, by the idea of a lonely loser meaninglessly killing the wealthy, brilliant, powerful, aristocratic Leader of the Free World. T seems to have been a doctor of some sort, and escapes from the hospital where he either worked (or was a patient), finds a woman and some radicals or sociopaths (or both) to use to hatch his plans. He is hunted by Dr. Nathan, who is either his colleague, his teacher, or his doctor, who is trying to find him, with help of Claire Austin, who is always standing by a window, and who I think was T's wife. With each new section, T's name changes, and we see similar events (a helicopter chase, flashbacks to sex and obsessive media projects, weird research, the death of a young woman, a fixation with car crashes) again and again, though slightly changed. The time is difficult to nail down: is this the same thing happening again and again, or only one event, remembered different ways? Are these things happening, or is T imagining them? Things seem to recur: I think Catherine Austin dies a half-dozen times. There is even a deplorable character named Vaughan, who may or may not be the same deplorable Vaughan of Crash, who was obsessed with the sexuality of car crashes. Ballard even took this into the real world when he staged a show of "new sculpture" at the Arts Lab in 1969, featuring three smashed cars, a topless girl, and closed-circuit television. During the month that the exhibition lasted, the cars were routinely subjected to "hostility" and attack from visitors to the gallery, and the girl was almost raped in the back set of a wrecked Pontiac.

I was at first tempted to call Ballard the most Žižekian of novelists, but considering that he began these weird stories when Žižek was about seventeen years old, it might be more accurate to call Žižek one of the most Ballardian of thinkers. There are strange mergings of inner and outer realities, such that it is impossible to determine if the external world is an application of T's psyche, or if his psyche has been determined and constructed by external inputs. There is a recurring motif of confusing landscapes with bodies: "Above all, the multistory car park was a model for her rape," for instance. The figure of Dr. Nathan is either the manifestation of postmodernism taken to its logical conclusions or a ruthless send-up of that impoverished belief system, to the extent that those two things are different. He spends a lot of time saying things like this:

"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. In the eucharist of the simulated auto-disaster we see the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader, our nearest image of the blood and body of Christ."

Do we?

In the last few sections of the book, the bold-face title phrases start to form disconnected sentences, which I have reproduced below in an effort to give you an indication of what the book is like to read. Generally, one gets the impression that Ballard, through all his peculiar avant-garde techniques, is on to something. Much like how Crash is borne of the observation that while car crashes are horrific in person, at a distance they become fascinating, and as entertainment are positively appealing ("The key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car...it sums up speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and technology...a car is the ultimate freedom: the freedom to kill yourself"), so too has visual media allowed the (usually male) psyche to re-create optimum sex and death acts in ways which have private meaning, rather than the absurd, meaningless character of real life. "Art," he wrote, "is the principle way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense." In terms of the structure of creation and the drive to create, whether the content of the optimum scenario is sex or death becomes immaterial, interchangeable: what matters is that it "make sense" to the person doing the constructing. The recurring images, often given in lists, tend to blend together. Here's a representative: "Pudenda of auto-crash victims. Using assembly kits constructed from photographs of (a) unidentified bodies of accident victims, (b) Cadillac exhaust assemblies, (c) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, volunteers were asked to devise the optimum auto-crash victim. The notional pudenda of crash victims exercised a particular fascination. Choice of subjects was as follows..." There are some eerily prescient bits: the section entitled "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," written in 1969, suggests that images of Reagan may be the optimum mental combination of sex and violence, realized on a large scale. Ballard had quite the track record of things like this: in 1968, he predicted that eventually visual media would allow everyone to star in their own personal porn films, realizing in external images their private fantasies, in 1971 argued that personal computers would allow people to opt out of reality, and so forth.

The Atrocity Exhibition is brilliant and also almost unreadable. Few things could be less like a novel: a banana, for instance, is slightly more like a novel than The Atrocity Exhibition. It might also be brilliant. I really don't know.

Here are the combined paragraph titles. This is the closest I can come to indicating what the book is like to read. Just imagine each line is followed by a paragraph of strange, violent, sexual, obsessive text:

In his dream of Zapruder frame 235
Tallis was increasingly preoccupied
by the figure of the President's wife.
The planes of her face, like the
cars of the abandoned motorcade
mediated to him the complete silence
of the plaza, the geometry of murder.

At night, these visions of helicopters and the D.M.Z.
fused in Traven's mind with the spectre
of his daughter's body. The lantern of her face
hung among the corridors of sleep.
Warning him, she summoned to her side
all the legions of the bereaved.
By day the overflights of B.52s
crossed the drowned causeways of the delta,
unique ciphers of violence and desire.

Each afternoon in the deserted cinema
Tallis was increasingly distressed
by the images of colliding motor cars.
Celebrations of his wife's death,
the slow-motion newsreels
recapitulated all his memories of childhood,
the realization of dreams
which even during the safe immobility of sleep
would develop into nightmares of anxiety.

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