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Sexual anguish

John Tranter reviews

The Atrocity Exhibition
by J.G. Ballard
Jonathan Cape, $2:75.

Provenance: first published in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: Vol. 50 No. 21, September 17, 1970. Transcribed by Corner Cottage Enterprises 2009, edited by John Tranter 2009.


Ballard’s latest book (one can hardly call it a novel; nor would it wish to be called one) is a logical extension of the trend evident in his earlier books. Beginning with The Four-Dimensional Nightmare and progressing through The Drought, The Crystal World, The Disaster Area, The Drowned World and The Terminal Beach, Ballard has been strengthening his grasp not on narrative technique, plot or character development (those hangovers from a more leisurely age) but on a mental style. The Crystal World was its most florid incarnation: a few strange figures in a luminous and coruscating landscape which matched exactly the mental state of its occupants.
Where his earlier works were surreal landscapes, his latest is an abstract multiple print of the same themes, or, more properly, obsessions. The effect, on the level of literary style, is that of montage. The chapters, arranged in a sort of progression, contain mini-chapters sorted apparently at random. The main character appears under slightly different names in each chapter, and slightly different things happen to him. The raw material of the obsessions or a rehash and at the same time a “modernisation” of the themes which have appeared with growing monotony in his earlier books. Where the surreal effect once charmed, it now irritates. A few samples are worth a thousand words:


“The Exploding Madonna. For Travis, the ascension of his wife’s body above the target area, exploding madonna of the weapons range, was a celebration of the rectilinear intervals through which he perceived the surrounding continuum of time and space. Here she became one with the madonnas of the hoardings and the opthalmic films, the Venus of the magazine cuttings whose postures celebrated his own search through the suburbs of hell … Who was Koester: a student in Talbot’s class; Judas in this scenario; a rabbi serving a sinister novitiate? Why had he organised this exhibition of crashed cars? The truncated vehicles, with their ruptured radiator grilles, were arranged in lines down the showroom floor. His warped sexuality, of which she had been aware since his arrival at the first semester, had something of the same quality as these maimed vehicles…” and so on.


The weird aptness of Ballard’s juxtapositions are enticing at first, but their repetition, however permutated, becomes boring in the end.


There is also a sense of self-indulgence in the intellectual slickness of the scene-setting. One of the characters spends whole nights sitting on the roof listening to the “music of the quasars”. This sort of intellectual posture is too close to the sentimental Romantic image of the pale poet wandering by the lake listening to the Muse. The magpie habit of collecting conceptually attractive pieces of the contemporary environment also degenerates into a kind of sophisticated trendiness all of which will require massive volumes of footnotes if the book is to be read in twenty year’s time. Movie stars, “in” psychological theories, sexual anguish delivered clinically in close and “meaningful” juxtaposition with mechanical analogues (car-crashes, surgery, etc.) give the book an already dated and too private air of experimentation. It seems at times as though William Burroughs had cut up a science fiction short story from Nova with the help of an advertising agency run by an obsessional paranoid.


The book’s two main attractions are the sharp-edged power of the surreal imagery and the freshness of the montage technique. The first can be found working to better effect in his earlier books, and the second is already out of date.


John E. Tranter

* Nova magazine was a monthly British style magazine of the “Swinging London” era, edited by David Hillman, Dennis Hackett and Harry Peccinotti and published by IPC from March 1965 until October 1975. <>

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