The Atrocity Exhibition

jg ballard by neal fox

The Atrocity Exhibition is an experimental collection of ‘condensed novels’ by British writer J. G. Ballard. The book was originally published in the UK in 1970 by Jonathan Cape.

After a 1970 edition by Doubleday & Company had already been printed, Nelson Doubleday, Jr. personally cancelled the publication and had the copies destroyed, fearing legal action from some of the celebrities depicted in the book. Thus, the first U.S. edition was published in 1972 by Grove Press under the title ‘Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.’

It was made into a film by Jonathan Weiss in 2001. All of the 1970 book originally appeared as stories in magazines before being collected. There is some debate on whether the book is an experimental novel with chapters or a collection of linked stories. With titles such as ‘Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,’ ‘Love and Napalm: Export USA,’ and ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,’ and by constantly associating the Kennedy assassination with a sexual or sporting event, the work has maintained controversy, especially in the United States, where some considered it a slur on the dead president’s image. Ballard claimed that ‘it was an attempt for me to make sense of that tragic event.’

‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ is split up into fragments, similar to the style of William S. Burroughs, a writer whom Ballard admired. Burroughs, indeed, wrote the preface to the book. Though often called a ‘novel’ by critics, such a definition is disputed, because all its parts had an independent life. ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,’ for example, had three prior incarnations: in the ‘International Times,’ in ‘Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry,’ and as a freestanding booklet from Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton, England all in 1968. All 15 pieces had been printed and some even reprinted before ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ was published.

Each chapter/story is split up into smaller sections, some of them labelled by part of a continuing sentence; Ballard has called these sections ‘condensed novels.’ There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and it does not follow any of the conventional novelistic standards: the protagonist (such as he is) changes name with each chapter/story (Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc.), just as his role and his visions of the world around him seems to change constantly. (Ballard explains in the 1990 annotated edition that the character’s name was inspired by reclusive novelist B. Traven, whose identity is still not certainly known.)

The stories describe how the mass media landscape inadvertently invades and splinters the private mind of the individual. Suffering from a mental breakdown, the protagonist — ironically, a doctor at a mental hospital — surrenders to a world of psychosis. Traven tries to make sense of the many public events that dominate his world (Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, the Space Race, and especially the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy), by restaging them in ways that, to his psychotic mind, gives them a more personal meaning. It is never quite clear how much of the novel ‘really’ takes place, and how much only occurs inside the protagonist’s own head. Characters that he kills return again in later chapters (his wife seems to die several times). He travels with a Marilyn Monroe scorched by radiation burns, and with a bomber-pilot of whom he notes that ‘the planes of his face did not seem to intersect correctly.’

Inner and outer landscapes seem to merge together (a Ballardian specialty), as the ultimate goal of the protagonist is to start World War III, ‘though not in any conventional sense’ – a war that will be fought entirely within his own mind. Bodies and landscapes are constantly confused (‘Dr. Nathan found himself looking at what seemed a dune top, but was in fact an immensely magnified portion of the skin area over the iliac crest,’ ‘he found himself walking between the corroding breasts of the film-actress,’ and ‘these cliff-towers revealed the first spinal landscapes’). At other times the protagonist seems to see the entire world, and life around him, as nothing more than a vast geometrical equation, such as when he observes a woman pacing around the apartment he has rented: ‘This … woman was a modulus … by multiplying her into the space/time of the apartment, he could obtain a valid unit for his own existence.’

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