Friday, 14 August 2009

Book Review: The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash by J.G. Ballard

Alongside Empire of the Sun, his wartime autobiographical novel, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash are considered the most important and distinctive of J.G. Ballard's fictions. But a word of warning to anyone new to J.G. or those of a sensitive disposition; these are transgressive pieces of literature, very much extreme works of the imagination. When the manuscript for Crash was sent off for publication in 1973, the publisher's reader reported back to her editor, not without a certain amount of justification, that 'this author is beyond psychiatric help-do not publish!'

The Atrocity Exhibition is a collection of linked pieces; each piece or 'condensed novel' originally published separately in the avant-garde journal Ambit and Michael Moorcock's left-field science fiction magazine, New Worlds. They detail the obsessions of an alienated psychiatrist under going some kind of mental breakdown; attempting to make sense of the irrational violence of the 1960's-the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, The H Bomb, car crashes, etc-and his own bodily and conscious identity, in a world dominated by advertising, iconic celebrities, pornography and media saturation. There is no plot and the book can be read out of sequence, but a very loose and fragmented narrative can be mapped out. Here is an example of prose taken from Chapter Five: Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown:

Pentax Zoom. In these equations, the gestures and postures of the young woman, Trabert explored the faulty dimensions of the space capsule, the lost geometry and volumetric time of the dead astronauts.

(1) Lateral section through the left axillary fossa of Karen Novotny, the elbow raised in a gesture of pique: the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader.

(2) A series of paintings of imaginary sexual organs. As he walked around the exhibition, conscious of Karen's hand gripping his wrist, Trabert searched for some valid point of junction. These obscene images, the headless creatures of nightmare, grimaced at him like the exposed corpses in the Apollo capsule, the victims of a thousand auto-crashes.

(3) 'The Stolen Mirror' (Max Ernst). In the eroded causeways and porous rock towers of this spinal landscape Trabert saw the blistered epithelium of the astronauts, the time-invaded skin of Karen Novotny.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a challenge because of its style and disturbing content. But for those with the right temperament it makes for an exhilarating read. Its strength lies in its visual intensity like a video collage or surrealist painting, its mysteriousness and utter originality-there is nothing quite like this in literature. The latest edition contains annotations by the author which are worth reading in themselves for their unsettling but thought provoking uniqueness.

The Weapons Range.

Weapons ranges have a special magic, all that destructive technology concentrated on the production of nothing, the closest we can get to certain obsessional states of mind. Even more strange are the bunkers of the Nazi Atlantic Wall, most of which are still standing, and are far larger than one expects. Space-age cathedrals they threaten the surrounding landscape like lines of Teutonic knights, and are examples of cryptic architecture, where form no longer reveals function. They seem to contain the codes of some mysterious mental process. At Utah Beach, the most deserted stretch of the Normandy coast, they stare out over the washed sand, older than the planet. On visits with my agent and his wife, I used to photograph them compulsively.

'If The Atrocity Exhibition was a firework display in a charnel house, Crash was a thousand-bomber raid on reality...', so said J.G. describing Crash in his autobiography, Miracles of Life. Crash unlike The Atrocity Exhibition has the conventional structure of a novel, a first person narration with plot and characters. But Crash travels even further into the realms of the psychopathic and obsessional. The narrator, disturbingly named 'James Ballard,' accounts his escalating sexual fixation with crushed metal and car crash injuries after his own auto-accident and his homoerotic fascination with Vaughan, 'hoodlum scientist' and 'nightmare angel of the highways.' Vaughan is a type that inhabits many of Ballard's novels; usually a doctor, psychologist or scientist but dangerously unhinged, an expounder of a 'deviant logic' underpinning modern society and crucially holding a strong but unsettling attraction for the main character or narrator. Vaughan celebrates the automobile disaster as a form of religious sacrament, a fusion of flesh and technology, sex and death.

Vaughan unfolded for me all his obsessions with the mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat -belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue. For Vaughan each crashed car set off a tremor of excitement, in the complex geometries of a dented fender, in the unexpected variations of crushed radiator grilles, in the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver's crotch as if in some calibrated act of machine fellatio. The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized for ever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

Crash is repetitive (some would say tedious) and monomaniacal, but this bombardment of perverse but clinical imagery, acts like a mantra and adds to the hallucinatory but nightmarish extremity of the novel. The empty landscape of motorways and flyovers, filling stations and ultra modern hotels and apartment blocks with Heathrow airport at the centre is turned into an alien terrain.

On the first afternoon I had barely recognized the endless landscape of concrete and structural steel that extended from the motorways to the south of the airport, across its vast runways to the new apartment systems along Western Avenue. Our own apartment house at Drayton Park stood a mile to the north of the airport in a pleasant island of modern housing units, landscaped filling stations and supermarkets, shielded from the distant bulk of London by an access spur of the northern circular motorway which flowed past us on its elegant concrete pillars. I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction.

During my weeks in hospital the highway engineers had pushed its huge decks more than half a mile further south. Looking closely at this silent terrain, I realised the entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter.

Crash can be read in three different ways; as a 'kind of psychopathic hymn' or 'the first pornographic novel based on technology;' as a psychological horror story detailing obsessional states of mind or as J.G. puts it in the last line of his 1995 introduction:

Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.

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