Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Title: The Atrocity Exhibition
Author: J.G. Ballard
Genre: Abstract Fiction
Publisher: Doubleday
First published: 1970

Rating: 3 out of 10

First published under the title Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A., this offensive and controversial little book was so revolting to some, publisher Nelson Doubleday Jr. actually sought out copies of the books and destroyed them.

I love controversy, and I must admit that I find socially unacceptable things intriguing. So I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

What a mad, jumbled mess of weirdness this book is. The way that it is written would fall under the Experimental category, or what I like to call Abstract Fiction. Each paragraph has a title, and some paragraphs may not necessarily relate to the one that precedes it - at all. Some paragraphs are written as a traditional novel would be, some are tips and guidelines, and others are lists, with numbers to separate point 1 from point 2.

Ballard's writing has a dream-like quality to it. I kept thinking to myself that this book would make perfect sense to some intoxicated individual - but the rest of us aren't completely able to follow, and I think that that's the way the author wanted it, as he seems to follow no guideline or plan at all.

Celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor make many confusing appearances, and the Kennedy family is a major focus.
With chapter titles like "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" or "Plans to Assassinate Jacqueline Kennedy," it isn't hard to see why the book caused such a negative stir when it was released bit by bit in the 70's.

As I said, there is no real structure to this book, and the reader would do best not to expect any to emerge, or look for anything resembling a plot. There appears to be a single main character, but his name changes at least four or five times. For example, he may be mentioned as Talbot here, Talbert there, as if our narrator has forgotten which it is. Talbert / Talbot's wife dies, but then comes back into the story, dies, and then comes back, dies, and... you guessed it... comes back again. People wander through cities that are really made of massive bones and rotting private parts, and one paragraph (the longest in the book) gives us a rambling list of people who shot people, who then shot other people, who then shot other people, and so on. Apparently none of these shootings were fatal, as they lived to shoot another victim.

The book was sick and twisted, and of course original, but even though I sometimes like that sort of thing, I wouldn't call this a good read. The lack of any plot or point to it was interesting, but ultimately it was a negative for me. Without the slightest clue whatsoever what would be next - and I mean that strictly - I found myself glad that the book was so short.

Eventually, I got a bit weary of the name-sullying and the "atrocity" that Ballard kept throwing at the reader. Obviously, the whole point of this book was to offend and / or shock, but really now. Is that as far as it goes? Couldn't he have put a few other points in as well?
I read online that Ballard viewed this novella as an outlet of grief stemming from the JFK assassination, and that he only included his favorite film stars, but honestly, I can't see any of these people being flattered to be written into his book. Rather than give tribute, Ballard ruthlessly tramples his 'favorites' under his heavy pen.

The book ends abruptly and weirdly by giving extremely detailed, gross insight into Mae West getting breast implants. It cuts off right there, furthering the sense that it isn't a real novel, but rather a haphazard bunch of strange jotting-downs thrown together.

Interesting, I suppose, but nothing special.