The Atrocity Exhibition
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Originally published in 1970 by Jonathan Cape, a revised large format paperback edition, with annotations by the author and illustrations by Phoebe Gloeckner, was issued by RE/Search in 1990 (ISBN 0-940642-18-2). The first U.S. edition was published in 1972 by Grove Press under the title Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. (ISBN 0-394-48277-8). It was made into a film by Jonathan Weiss in 2001.
Various pieces of the book were initially released independently, before being collected into a single novel. With chapter titles such as "Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy," "Love and Napalm: Export USA," and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," and by constantly associating the Kennedy Assassination with a sexual event, the novel was met with some controversy, especially in U.S.A, where it was considered a slur on the dead president's image. Ballard himself claimed that "it was an attempt for me to make sense of that tragic event."
The Atrocity Exhibition is split up into fragments, similar to the style of William Burroughs, a writer whom Ballard admired. Burroughs, indeed, wrote the preface to the novel. The book makes little sense if read as a conventional novel, and Ballard has suggested that readers should peruse the book at random, reading passages that catch their eye.
Each chapter is split up into smaller sections, each only a paragraph long; Ballard has called these sections "condensed novels". There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and the novel does not follow any of the conventional novelistic standards: the protagonist (such as he is) changes name with each chapter (Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc), just as his role and his visions of the world around him seems to change constantly. (The character's name was inspired by reclusive novelist B. Traven, whose identity is still not certainly known.)
The theme of the story describes how the mass media landscape inadvertently invades and splinters the private mind of the individual. Suffering from a mental breakdown, the protagonist -- ironically, a doctor at a mental hospital -- surrenders to a world of psychosis. Traven tries to make sense of the many public events that dominate his world (Marilyn Monroe's suicide, the Space Race, and especially the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy), by restaging them in ways that, to his psychotic mind, gives them a more personal meaning. It is never quite clear how much of the novel really takes place, and how much only occurs inside the protagonist's own head. Characters that he kills return again in later chapters (his wife seems to die several times). He travels with a Marilyn Monroe scorched by radiation burns, and with a bomber-pilot of whom he notes that "the planes of his face did not seem to intersect correctly."
Inner and outer landscapes seem to merge together (a Ballardian specialty), as the ultimate goal of the protagonist is to start World War III, "though not in any conventional sense" - a war that will be fought entirely within his own mind. Bodies and landscapes are constantly confused ("Dr. Nathan found himself looking at what seemed a dune top, but was in fact an immensely magnified portion of the skin area over the Iliac-crest", "he found himself walking between the corroding breasts of the film-actress", and "these cliff-towers revealed the first spinal landscapes"). At other times the protagonist seems to see the entire world, and life around him, as nothing more than a vast geometrical equation, such as when he observes a woman pacing around the apartment he has rented: "This ... woman was a modulus ... by multiplying her into the space/time of the apartment, he could obtain a valid unit for his own existence."
References in other media
- The novel inspired the Joy Division song of the same name from their 1980 album Closer.
- Merzbow's album Great American Nude took its name from one of the book's chapters.
- Two tracks on Gary Numan's 1994 album Sacrifice refer to the book: "Love and Napalm", taken from one of the chapter titles; and "A Question of Faith", which includes the line "I'll be your exhibition of atrocity".
- Experimental rock/jazz band Swivel Stick titled its 1996 album Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown.
- The first single from Patti Smith's 1996 album "Gone Again" is called "Summer Cannibals".
- The Atrocity Exhibition (excerpt)
- The University of Death
- The Assassination Weapon
- You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
- Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (excerpt)
- The Great American Nude
- The Summer Cannibals
- Tolerances of the Human Face
- You and Me and the Continuum
- Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy
- Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.
- Crash! (excerpt)
- The Generations of America
- Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan
- The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race
- Princess Margaret's Facelift
- Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty
- Queen Elizabeth's Rhinoplasty
- The Secret History of World War 3