I did something very naughty yesterday. It was my day off work and the weather was awful – rain, sleet, snow, icy gusts of wind – so I curled up in bed and read a book.
The book in question was The Atrocity Exhibition by JG Ballard. I haven’t got on with Ballard in the past, because there is something so clinically cold about his work, but once you accept that he’s an experimental writer who isn’t particularly interested in creating accessible characters, then he is very interesting.
The Atrocity Exhibition isn’t a collection of short stories, but neither is it a novel. It reminds me of art house cinema. It is a collection of visions which eventually combine in your mind into a cohesive whole. In the Author’s Note, Ballard suggests that the reader flick through the book and pick a passage at random, because “you will be reading the book in the way it was written”.
Thematically, there seems to be an obsession with violence, war, the presentation of celebrity and the erotic potential of car crashes. This really is a thing: symphorophilia is sexual fetish involving the staging or witnessing of a disaster, such as a fire or a car accident.
I’ve been in the sort of car crash that would normally result in death and there was nothing erotic about it. It was absolutely terrifying. I suppose there’s no accounting for people’s sexual perversions. However, I can see that there is a potential for excitement in the witnessing of a disaster. I’m sure we have all rubber-necked a motorway accident, feeling pity, but fascinated by the carnage.
I was lucky, the people who stopped and helped after my accident were wonderful, as were the paramedics. It was only once I reached the hospital that I realised the capacity for sadism when you’re a medic dealing with powerless patients. It was pretty inhumane and I would honestly rather die at home in my bed, than step foot in another hospital.
I notice that Ballard has a fixation with doctors – in the sense that doctors feature heavily in his work and are strange creatures, cold, emotionally detached and all potential Dr Mengeles. I don’t share this view of the medical profession, but it makes for interesting reading, particularly in his choice of language, which uses lots of scientific and anatomical terms.
The writing is very strange and beautiful – extremely sophisticated and intellectual. Ballard makes me feel like a clumsy caveman in comparison. If words are tools, then Ballard was creating incredible futuristic cathedrals, while I’m still bashing a couple of rocks together.