Upon visiting a Waterstones bookshop last week (only the second time since February 2020), we spotted a copy of J.G. Ballard’s notorious Crash (1973).
We then remembered The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a novella we read at university in 2004. It was enough to put us off reading Crash for life!
Our book reviews aren’t always of works we think are fantastic, but they are ones certainly noteworthy in respect to an author’s canon. Behold, then, this review.
The Atrocity Exhibition
Ballard (1930-2009) is arguably best known for High-Rise (1975) and his writings in sci-fi.
However, he was a versatile writer and also penned the brilliant Empire of the Sun (1984), which Steven Spielberg adapted into an excellent 1987 movie.
Ballard also worked on experimental novels and novellas in the 1970s. Crash was one, which outraged society with its tales of car crash fetishism.
Three years prior to its release, the writer completed The Atrocity Exhibition and it was published in the UK. Its US edition launched in 1972 as Love and Napalm: Export USA.
After Ballard’s first wife suddenly died of pneumonia in the late 1960s, he was badly affected and so came up with the idea for this book.
Exhibiting That Prose
It’s very unconventional in its structure. It’s part sci-fi, part-historical fiction, and also pornographic in its approach.
Trying to categorise it is hard work. It’s a tale of death/danger/disturbed sexuality through psychoanalysis and surrealism.
The central character’s name changes slightly in each new chapter, with his goal being to start World War III.
The Atrocity Exhibition is infatuated with the mass media and how it obsesses over catastrophes. From the Vietnam War to JFK’s assassination, the prose is experimental and is broken into sections.
Some have classed it as a poem. Others think it’s a satirical mocking of society’s love for blood and guts, which is a stance that makes it prescient for the internet-era and media (particularly tabloid) hyperbole and sensationalism.
From our research online, we found other readers have picked up the book and read random pages. They discovered sentences such as:
“The profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years.”
Sentences are all jumbled together like that, showing how unstructured the work is.
We can think of Fernando Pessoa’s brilliant The Book of Disquiet in similar fashion, except his ruminations are fabulous, clear, and enlightening.
With Atrocity Exhibition, all is unclear. It’s kind of like Finnegans Wake/Ulysees by James Joyce—you try to decode what the whole thing bloody means word by word.
In 2004, we picked up the below edition of Ballard’s work from a Fopp store in Nottingham.
This one is packed out with Ballard’s annotations, where he waxes lyrical about the psychoanalytical meaning behind the deliberately macabre statements he made when writing the thing.
We actually find those sections entertaining and revealing—the best bit of the work. Whereas the prose was dull and meandering.
So if you can get a copy of this book (and want to), we guess the above is the one to buy.
An Atrocious Conclusion
Studying English at university, reading as many new writers as possible was an important time for us and our literary development.
Then at one point we read The Atrocity Exhibition. And it bored the crap out of us.
As much as we admire Ballard as a brilliant writer, thinker, and creative, we found it a tedious novella to read.
However, that’s our take on it. We’ve seen some people online rave about the work and consider it a masterpiece.
But The Atrocity Exhibition does read like a series of unconnected sentences, spliced together with machinations on sex, death, war, destruction, car crashes, and other stuff like that.
Some readers may enjoy plunging into it with a trippy sense of Freudian exploration, analysing each sentence as others readers do with Finnegans Wake.
There are entire reading communities dedicated to decoding Joyce’s epic stream of consciousness ramblings.
You can do the same for The Atrocity Exhibition as well.
For us, we’ll reiterate we found the work pretentious and boring. It makes no sense and we’ve little inclination to pick about its satire.
It’s like some art house movie overly pleased with its complexities which it’s working very, very hard to layer on top of inane sexual fetishes.
Heck, Ballard’s point was no doubt to provoke such a wide range of reactions from people.
We just feel, if you’re going to do that, at least make it an interesting read.