Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Atrocity Exhibition - J G Ballard

There had been one or two hints in the work Ballard produced prior to this tour de force of what was to come. But they can be seen mostly with hindsight. The clues were more to be found in his short stories which were becoming astonishingly condensed – simple language resonating so much with the zeitgeist that sentence could convey whole chapters of meaning.

Eventually he began work on the short stories/chapters/condensed novels that make up this truly astonishing work of fiction. Short, formalised scenes that play over and over with compounding variations that build up a multi-layered, four-dimensional nightmare. The obsessions of the characters reflect the obsessions of the world in which they live. And although they were of a particular time, it would be possible to substitute Vietnam with Iraq or Afghanistan, the celebrities of the ‘70s with iconic figures of today, and our obsession with the motor car has never gone away. Indeed, the notion of ‘crash’ has taken on an extra resonance in today’s financial meltdown.

I’m not sure calling this work experimental (as some do) is useful. Ballard has perfected the form. His use of imagery, the language of sociological reportage, and the layered building of characters is as powerful as in any other major literary work of the twentieth century. The fact that Ballard chose to confront taboos and use a fractured form (perfectly in keeping with the subject matter and the society it examined) merely heightens the experience.

However, this is not an easy read. It requires concentration and an acceptance that there are more ways to tell a story than there are stories. Certainly anyone interested in writing and in what heights English literature is capable of scaling (rather than the tired literati clones we are saddled with today) has to read Ballard.