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Enthralling Nightmares: Cars, Mutilation, Death, And... Sex In Two Novels By J.G. Ballard

by J.

The Renaissance knew of strange manners of poisoning - poisoning by a helmet and a lighted torch, by an embroidered glove and a jewelled fan, by a gilded pomander and an amber chain. Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a novel with an unconventional structure. Instead of tracing a history, the events involving a set of characters as they develop through time, it traces a course, so to speak, at rightangles to time, or even perhaps, over the area of a cross-section through time, and follows a set of events that reveal the aspects of a character through parallels of existence.

This bald description has all the disadvantages of explaining something that is difficult to understand in a way that is equally difficult to understand, so to make sense of the description, and then of the novel, more explanation is required.

So, consider the history of a pebble: Geological processes cause it to flake off from a piece of rock, and perhaps it rolls away, falling into the sea where it is rolled in the shingle losing its sharp angles and corners. As the centuries pass, the pebble is abraded and polished until at last it breaks up into sand grains. At each point in its history the pebble will have a particular shape and occupy a particular position. Its history could be visualised as a line rising from a point and getting higher and higher as time passes. The height of the line represents the time dimension and the whole history of the pebble can be visualised all at once as a wavy rising line in some abstract space.

So consider the life of person: The potential for individuality comes into being at the moment the egg is fertilized. From that moment and for every following moment until the person dies, that person has a specific and unique location in the world. If it were possible to record the life of that person using a time-exposure of the film in a still camera, it is conceivable that the person would leave a streak on the film as she moved from one place to another, and treating time like another dimension of space the life of the person would be a long trace in the temporal direction, a wandering line in time. If we were to cut through the temporal trace we would see revealed the person perhaps a child, perhaps an old person, and in the trace every part of the life is accessible at once. You don't have to wait for the years to go by to find out what the old person will be like, and the person's childhood is not irretrievably lost in history.

At first it is difficult to visualise this: Imagine that a film was made of somebody's life and then each frame of the film was stacked in order on top of its predecessor, and you could look through the stack from the side, you would see a line of density corresponding to the movements of the person, and if you chose one frame you would be able to see what the person was doing at the time. Complicated as this seems it is only part of the total representation because it takes no account of chance.

Some scientists believe that all possible events take place in the Universe. This seems to be contrary to common sense. If you toss a coin it comes down either heads or tails. If it comes down heads it can't have come down tails, and vice versa. The scientists believe that at the instant of tossing the coin the Universe forks into two separate Universes, one in which the coin came down heads, the other in which it came down tails. Everything in the original Universe is duplicated in the two new Universes, including our consciousness, which divides and separates passing into the Universe where the coin came down heads, and into the Universe where it came down tails. Of course, in whichever Universe we happen to be the coin came down one way, and there is no conceivable way that we could make contact with the other selves, for example the one in the other Universe where the coin came down the other way, or in any of the other Universes that are being budded off every instant into fork after fork after fork. So for any person, the history of that life is not just a single line through time, but a complicated trunk that starts at conception and forks and forks through time, taking in the separate universes of its existence all the mutually exclusive choices that are conceivably possible. All of these Universes experience the same time, so at any instant the ones that branched off recently, although they will all be different, will all share the same broad characteristics, just as a cluster of twigs all arising from the same branch will occupy much the same position in space.

The Atrocity Exhibition can be read as a series of closely related sections through a forking system of universes of the type I have described. This interpretation is not unique, some times, after a restless night, one can wake up feeling that one has had the same dream a dozen times, and perhaps the novel should be read as the same nightmare experienced serially, with modifications, each repetition changing the dream somewhat, the changes accumulating, so that the dreams fall into a progressive sequence, or perhaps it could be read as the same nightmare suffered by different people. I prefer the forking universe interpretation.

So much for the structure of the novel: What is it about? Sex, mutilation, assassination and accidental death, and the nature of the Universe. The central figures, Travis, Talbot, Traven, Tallis, Talbert, Travers, can be seen as the incarnations in recently forking universes of some original individual. They all occupy universes which are focussed on surrealism, mutilation, and sixties sf kitsch. Car crashes and the accidental deaths of filmstars, the depiction, of small details of the anatomy, tiny elements, so isolated from context as to be almost unrecognizable, magnified to gigantic size, displayed on vast signs, in a landscape of nothing else but casual devastation, London suburbs in the rain at night, are the twentieth century recollection of the cartwheels on poles depicted in The Triumph Of Death by Brueghel, and in the nightmares of Bosch. The events have their significance, but it is fugitive, there is a logic, but it is hidden in the sectional nature of the narrative as we see atemporal paradoxical time implied by the different forks of the parental universe that spawned Trav-is, -ers, -en, and Tal-bert, -bot, -lis, like one of those games where you substitute one letter at a time and transform one word into another through a series of intervening words with glancing tangential connexions, resonances of meaning, in the ordering of their letters. The work is dense, and impossible to summarise: there is no plot to outline, nothing to abstract, even quotation misrepresents the work because its effect resides in being itself. It has to be read as a testament of existential gloom illuminated by unexpected parallels, for example:

Casualties Union. At a young woman's suggestion, Travis joined the C.U., and with a group of thirty housewives practised the simulation of wounds. Later they would tour with Red Cross demonstration teams. Massive cerebral damage and abdominal bleeding in automobile accidents could be imitated within half an hour, aided by the application of coloured resins. Convincing radiation burns required careful preparation, and might involve some three or four hours of make-up. Death by contrast, was a matter of lying prone. Later, in the apartment they had taken overlooking the zoo, Travis washed the wounds off his hands and face. This curious pantomime, overlaid by the summer evening stench of the animals, seemed performed solely to pacify his two companions...

and later:

Elements of an orgasm. (1) her ungainly transit across the passenger seat through the nearside door; (2) the conjunction of aluminized gutter trim with the volumes of her thighs; (3) the crushing of her left breast by the door pillar, its self-extension as she swung her legs on to the sandy floor; (4) the overlay of her knees and the metal door flank; (5) the ellipsoid erasure of dust as her hip brushed the nearside fender; ... (11) the sweat forming a damp canopy in the cleavage of her blouse - the entire landscape expired within this irrigated trench; (12) the jut and rake of her pelvis as she moved into the driving seat; (13) the junction of her thighs and the steering assembly; (14) the movements of her fingers across the chromium-tipped instrument heads.

These two quotations give a taste of the whole book. The first, from the early part, dwells on the æsthetics of mutilation, the second on the juxtaposition of flesh and machinery that foreshadows the fusion of flesh and machinery in Crash. We shall see the 'the jut and rake' of the pelvis, and irrigated trenches once again in Crash, where what has been hinted at here is made explicit. The Atrocity Exhibition is a difficult book, both structurally and in its perverse preoccupation with unlikely fusions and conjunctions, but it is unique.

The novel Crash is much simpler in form. It is a normal linear narrative, the description of earlier events precedes the description of later ones. In content it is more complex than The Atrocity Exhibition because the single narrative line permits the development of events along chains of causation, preceding events leading inescapably to consequences. The pivotal incident is the injury of the first person narrator in a car accident that kills the driver of the other car. He becomes involved with Vaughan who is obsessed with sex, death, and automobiles. The insight that Ballard offers is the transformation of the person through major trauma. Significantly, the name of the fictional narrator is the same as the actual author, Ballard. After their accidents people are never the same again. So early in the book while Ballard is recuperating from the injuries to his legs he describes another patient.

One of my first errands was to collect the urine samples of an elderly woman in this ward, who had been knocked down by a cycling child. Her right leg had been amputated, and she now spent all her time folding a silk scarf around the small stump, tying and retying the ends as if endlessly wrapping a parcel. During the day this senile old dear was the nurses' pride, but at night when no visitors were presents, she was humiliated over the bed pan and callously ignored by the two nuns knitting in the staff room.

A passage typical of the reconstructed sexuality that the book celebrates follows:

... I turned the next pages. Vaughan had compiled an elaborate photographic dossier on the young woman. I guessed that he had chanced upon her accident a few minutes after she had skidded into the rear of the airline bus ... The next pictures showed her being lifted from the car, her white skirt heavy with blood. Her face leaned emptily against the arm of a fireman raising her from the bloody basin of the driving seat like some insane cultist in the American South baptized in a font of lamb's blood ... The last group of photographs showed the young woman in a chromium wheelchair, guided by a friend across the rhododendron-screened lawn of a convalescent institution, propelling her shiny vehicle herself at an archery meeting and finally taking her first lessons at the wheel of an invalid car ... The first photographs of her showed a conventional young woman whose symmetrical face and unstretched skin spelled out the whole economy of a cozy and passive life, of minor flirtations in the backs of cheap cars enjoyed without any sense of the real possibilities of her body ... Three months later, sitting beside her physiotherapy instructor in her new invalid car, she held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris. Her knowing eyes seemed well aware that the space between her crippled legs was constantly in the gaze of this muscled young man ... The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality ...

There is nothing resembling this passage in the whole of Western literature. Ballard has transcended the conventional response to injury and has invested it with the glamour and potentiality of a second puberty. It is foreshadowed in The Atrocity Exhibition but only in this work is there any recognition of the complete revision of response to accidental physical mutilation proclaimed in Crash. Pity and sorrow are transformed to an unpredicted acceptance of the unsought transformation imposed by the injuries consequent upon the car crash. The woman, Gabrielle is an emblem of what a person may become as the result of maturing through this second puberty. The process of transformation is the real centre of the novel, and the process of passage is the car crash, where life, death, and the orgasm fuse into the terrifying moment of truth. The book is a celebration of the process of becoming, and the achievement of having become. Ballard makes love to Gabrielle, and where else?

... it was I who made love to her, in the rear seat of her small car, surrounded by the bizarre geometry of the invalid controls. As I explored her body, feeling my way among the braces and straps of her underwear, the unfamiliar planes of her hips and legs steered me into unique culs-de-sac, strange declensions of the skin and musculature. Each of her deformities became a potent metaphor for the excitement of a new violence. Her body, with its angular contours, its unexpected junctions of mucous membrane and hairline, detrusor muscle and erectile tissue, was a ripening anthology of perverse possibilities.

The action of the book develops from Ballard's meeting while still in hospital with Vaughan. Vaughan appears to have a menial job in the hospital, but he may simply be a parasite, who, wearing a white coat, and moving about the buildings in a sufficiently assured way, is never challenged. While being serviced by a prostitute in a hired car parked on the top deck of a multistorey car park in the neighbourhood of London Air port, every detail of the scene conveying the existential emptiness of mechanically copulating insects, Ballard sees a photographic flash and looking down sees the aftermath of a crash involving an airline bus and a taxi. His photograph with the prostitute has been taken by Vaughan who, it is revealed later, constructs dossiers of photographs of people he has observed in car accidents. Vaughan is a thuggish figure exuding sexual mana, and as the novel develops Ballard becomes sexually infatuated with him in two complementary ways. Vaughan dominates Ballard through the strenuous homosexual magnetism that attracts Ballard to him using the attraction as a weapon, self-consciously, without appearing to have any reciprocal feelings for Ballard. But the dominant attraction is to do with the ultimate copulation, the union that Vaughan is planning to inflict through the agency of the final car crash joining his flesh with the flesh of his annunciated victim inseparably in death. It is in this final copulation that Ballard is to play his ancillary part, and the action of the novel carries the characters towards that culmination ineluctably.

Most of the atmosphere of the whole novel is epitomised by this event. The night, the squalid urban wasteland, the dispassionate unloving sex, the gaudy lightning flash of accident, and sexual obsession with meaningless injury. The novel contains three major female characters, Catherine, Ballard's wife, blond, elegant, disengaged. Gabrielle, the crippled social worker whose transformation has already been described in Ballard's - the author's - rhapsodic prose, and Helen Remington, the widow of the man killed in Ballard's - the character's - car crash. Ballard encounters Helen Remington while both of them are in hospital recovering from their injuries, but he doesn't speak to her. Afterwards, he goes to look at the wreck of his car in the police pound, and by coincidence meets Helen Remington on a similar errand. They speak together and an affair develops: they make love in cars; Ballard is impotent with her when they try to make love in bed at her house.

Beside Ballard the narrator, the two major male characters are Vaughan, sexually obsessed with the choreography of death in its manifestation the car crash, and Seagrave, the stunt driver. The name Seagrave is resonant, on one level, with puns 'Sea grave', 'See grave', and another with historical reference: it is the name of one of those pre-war sporting gents who spent their money on breaking speed records and motor racing, Major H. O. D. Seagrave, killed in a motoring accident (of course). Ballard becomes involved with Seagrave when he attends a display of pre-meditated car-crashing with Helen Remington. He sees Vaughan attending on Seagrave, taking photographs, and filming the action. The plans go awry and the crash that does take place is not the arranged one, leaving Seagrave concussed. Vaughan and Helen Remington take Seagrave to hospital in Vaughan's car leaving Ballard to follow behind. Afterwards they take Seagrave home and it is in Seagrave's sitting room that the crippled Gabrielle is introduced.

... Beside him on the sofa a sharp-faced young woman rolled another joint ... On her legs were traces of what seemed to be gas bacillus scars, faint circular depressions on the kneecaps. She noticed me staring at the scars but made no effort to close her legs. On the sofa beside her was a chromium metal cane. As she moved I saw that the instep of each leg was held in the steel clamp of a surgical support. From the over-rigid posture of her waist I guessed that she was wearing a back-brace of some kind. She rolled the cigarette out of the machine, glancing at me with evident suspicion. I guessed that this reflex of hostility was prompted by her assumption that I had not been injured in an automobile crash, unlike Vaughan, herself, and the Seagraves.

Shortly afterwards Vaughan shows Ballard the album of pictures recording Gabrielle's transformation, and the series of pictures that records his own accident.

Vaughan is planning a liebestod, his own death coinciding with Elizabeth Taylor's in the final car crash he is designing to take place as she is driven from London Airport to her hotel. The attempt fails, Elizabeth Taylor escapes, as she must, in our Universe, but Vaughan is killed. The sexuality of the whole novel revolves around the relationship between people and crashing automobiles. The people relate to each other without particular reference to sex. The relationship between Ballard and Vaughan has a powerful undertow of homosexuality, between Ballard and his wife of sexuality subsumed to intellect, the things they do to each other being dictated by their minds rather than their viscera. The things Gabrielle does are reshaped through the permanent alterations of her body through her terrible injuries. Seagrave drives, and the circus has Vaughan as the ringmaster. The only book to come close to Crash in the logical exhaustion of the possibilities of one sexual obsession is L' histoire d'O.

The Atrocity Exhibition gives the plan for Ballard - the author - 's universe, while Crash presents a detailed fragment of one small twig in the tree of possibilities. In different branches of the tree we can imagine Balmer, Bullard, Bulmer, Baumann, ... , all working out their destinies, exhausting the possibilities of sex, death, and automobiles.

Notes and references

The Atrocity Exhibition
James Graham Ballard (1972)
Panther Books Ltd, St Albans, Herts, United Kingdom
The first quotation was taken from page 10, the second from page 78 of this edition
Details of the 1997 movie "The Atrocity Exhibition" directed by Jonathan Weiss can be found on the Internet Movie Database.
James Graham Ballard (1975)
Panther Books Ltd, St Albans, Herts, United Kingdom
The quotations are taken from pages 34, 35, 84, 151 and 80 of this edition.
Details of the 1996 movie "Crash" directed by David Cronenberg can be found on the Internet Movie Database.
The Triumph of Death
The picture, painted circa 1562 is in the Prado in Madrid. It is reproduced in:
Pieter Brueghel. Complete edition of the paintings
G. Gluck (1957)
Phaidon Press Ltd, London.
The painting is also available in the Web Museum collection of paintings.
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