The Atrocity Exhibition by JG Ballard (1970)
Old favourites: Rob Doyle’s best-loved books
JG Ballard: obsesses over the ways violent mass media spectacles – Vietnam, the assassination of JKF, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe – send shockwaves across the global unconscious. Photograph: Rolph Gobits
The JG Ballard book that should grace every home is not Crash, nor even The Atrocity Exhibition, but Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008.
In Ballard’s interviews, the ideas teem with intoxicating abundance, whereas the novels that serve as vehicles for those ideas tend to be clunky and long-winded, their plots and cut-out characters the paraphernalia of an entertainment form unsuited to the agitated 21st-century brain that Ballard in other ways anticipated. Ballard was such a superb commentator on his own fiction, one wonders whether the fiction was needed at all. Might he not have simply pretended it existed, then given us books of pure ideation?
In the 1960s, Ballard wrote The Atrocity Exhibition, his most deliriously experimental novel, which wore its indebtedness to William Burroughs (whom Ballard revered “to the other side of idolatry”) on its sleeve. For a 1990 reissue, he annotated the novel with reflections and anecdotes. When I first read the book, I found the fiction as drastic and incoherent as a DMT trip, whereas the notes were highly stimulating. In them, Ballard freestyles on surrealist art and perverse sexuality, recounts such capers as putting on an exhibition of crashed cars, and affirms his literary indebtedness to the insane (“I owe them everything”).
Porn and torture
The Atrocity Exhibition obsesses over the ways in which violent mass media spectacles – Vietnam, the assassination of JKF, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe – send shockwaves across the electric circuits of the global unconscious. Today it reads as an analogue to life on the internet: 20 tabs open on porn, war, ads, torture and celebrity razzmatazz.
Despite the cold brutality and psychotic carnage, there is no gloom here. Ballard was at heart a surrealist comedian and a perverse optimist: he wanted us to immerse in the destructive element, give free rein to the boundless psychopathology provoked by media technology. Let’s watch the GoPro slaughters, jihadi snuff films and amputee porn, he might have said – and then we’ll see what the robust and indomitable human race mutates into.