The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(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, 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 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’s ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

Living Alone by Stella Benson

Stella BensonLike David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919) was published in the aftermath of the First World War. Both books set out to attack the conventional world, but if their attack was kicked off by a disgust with the horrors of war, the anti-conventional impulse was deep within these writers already. The main difference between the books is in their method of attack: Lindsay’s approach is to tear the conventional world to shreds to prove there’s nothing worth saving, while Benson satirises, using her ‘magic people’ — her witches and wizards — as exemplars of unconventionality, to show the world what it has lost. The odd thing is that, though a comedy, Benson’s book contains almost as much of a tragic note as Lindsay’s.

Living Alone starts with a woman bursting in on a charity committee. She’s just stolen a bun and needs to hide from the police. The committee, whose job is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, immediately starts trying to find excuses not to help her. But she doesn’t want help. The woman is a witch. She has packets of magic in her pockets.

‘Now witches and wizards, as you perhaps know, are people who are born for the first time. I suppose we have all passed through this fair experience, we must all have had our chance of making magic. But to most of us it came in the boring beginning of time, and we wasted our best spells on plesiosauri, and protoplasms, and angels with flaming swords, all of whom knew magic too, and were not impressed.’

One of the committee members, a woman called Sarah Brown, goes to the witch’s home, a shop-and-boarding house at ‘Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island, London’. This house is called Living Alone:

‘It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to ’bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.’

There are three types of alone-ness in Benson’s novel. The first is the natural lack of need for company — a self-sufficiency born from a rather childlike self-absorption and self-centredness — exemplified by the witch. In comparison to the conventional-minded — as typified by those who sit on committees (‘and a committee, of course, exists for the purpose of damping enthusiasms’) — these are the un-fallen innocents of the world, who ‘are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.’ But, as much as they’re childlike and innocent, they’re also not fully formed as human beings:

‘A heart is a sort of degree conferred by Providence on those who have passed a certain examination. Magic people are only freshmen in our college, and it is useless for us—secure in the possession of many learned letters after our names—to despise them. They will become sophisticated in due course.’

Being ‘sophisticated’ is the second type of alone-ness — not separation from other people, but from one’s deeper self. Those who are ‘sophisticated’ are the sort to sit on judgemental charitable committees, and are isolated from others not by childlike innocence, but by the assumption of an inauthentic, self-blinding maturity:

‘Mr. Darnby Frere was the editor of an advanced religious paper called I Wonder, but he never wondered really. He knew almost everything, and therefore, while despising the public for knowing so little, he encouraged it to continue wondering, so that he might continue despising and instructing it.’

This is the social self divorced from the truer, deeper self:

‘Religion which has forgotten ecstasy…. Law which has forgotten justice…. Charity which has forgotten love….’

Stella-Benson2The tragedy of Benson’s novel lies in the third type of alone-ness. This belongs to one character only, Sarah Brown. Sarah Brown (who’s always given both names, as if in an attempt to make her a distanced, comic everywoman figure, though it seems to me she’s the closest to an authorial self-portrait in the book) is not so mired in the conventional world that she refuses to acknowledge the existence of magic (unlike the increasingly red-faced policeman, who insists on interpreting everything in mundane terms, even while wanting to arrest the witch for ‘being in possession of an armed flying machine’ — her broom), while also knowing she herself isn’t magical. Sarah Brown, then, can see both the innocent paradise of the magical and the cynical worldliness of the conventional, but can fit into neither. She knows, for instance, she’s not the ‘True Love’ of the dashingly unconventional wizard Richard; she also knows that, even as she leaves London for New York, it will no more be her true home (‘America, you know, would be entirely magic, if it weren’t for the Americans’) than London was. Sarah Brown has something within her that makes her unfit both for civilised company and her own solitude:

‘She could not bear touch. She had no pleasure in seeing or feeling the skin and homespun that encloses men and women. She hated to watch people feeding themselves, or to see her own thin body in the mirror. She ought really to have been born a poplar tree; a human body was a gift wasted on her.’

And, having set foot in the house — having admitted her alone-ness — it’s as though she can never leave it, and can never be anything but alone:

‘How can you ever be far from home, you, a dweller in the greatest home of all. Did you think you had destroyed the House of Living Alone? Did you think you could escape from it?’

But for most of it, the book is lightly magical and nonsensical, not so much a story as a series of skits. Some of the chapters could be extracted as short stories, such as chapter VI, ‘An Air Raid Seen From Above’, where the witch of the House of Living Alone, flying over London, gets into a fight with a German counterpart, who, though magical, has somehow been co-opted into the cynical world’s endeavours:

“We are Crusaders,” said the German. “Crusaders at War with Evil.”

“Why, how funny—so are we,” said our witch. “But then how very peculiar that two Crusaders should apparently be fighting each other. Where then is the Evil? In No Man’s Land?”

Despite being set in wartime, Benson’s book is a self-declared ‘book of fine weather’, ostensibly written for frivolity and fun. Magic and the war are entangled, but not in the way you’d expect:

“I suppose the War was made by black magic,” suggested Sarah Brown, trying to talk intelligently and to be faithful to her own thoughts at the same time.

“Good Lord, no,” replied Richard. “The worst of this war is that it has nothing whatever to do with magic of any sort. It was made and is supported by men who had forgotten magic…”

To me, Living Alone meanders over the fine line between being satirically funny and wilfully twee, though there were enough little gems to keep me going. For instance:

‘Fairies are never ill. They have immortal bodies, but no souls. If they see you in pain, they simply think you are flaunting your superiority and your immortal soul in their faces.’

Or, the moment when Sarah Brown and the Witch set eyes on America:

“Here we are,” said the witch to Sarah Brown. “At least, I suppose this City on its Tiptoes is New York. Do you think I ought to call the attention of the Captain to that largish lady on our left, who seems to be marooned upon a rock, and signalling to us for help?”


“I could of course cure you of the nerve-storms you speak of. Or rather I could help you to have nerve-storms all the time, without any stagnant grown-upness in between. Then you wouldn’t notice the nerve-storms.”

At times, I found myself thinking that Living Alone could never be published today, it is so wilfully eccentric, but at other times I couldn’t help feeling it might fit easily into the world of the Harry Potter books.