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The Atrocity Exhibition

These are not reviews — more like reading notes.

Title: The Atrocity Exhibition
Author: J. G. Ballard
Published: 1970

The Atrocity Exhibition was originally published in 1970, but it was shredded by a distraught Nelson Doubleday, or so the story goes. It was published again by Grove in ’72 under a different title, and then again in 1990 by Re/Search.

It still reads like it was shredded. The text is composed of paragraph-sized chunks, more or less disconnected from one another and not building any kind of linear narrative. This was my biggest problem with the book. I couldn’t make any connections or trace any developments. The author actually recommends dipping in and reading at random, which I eventually did. The simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of this method is that you can never really tell when you’ve read it all, and consequently can never know if you’re done. Conversely no one can say you haven’t “finished it.” I don’t think I read the whole thing, but I don’t think that matters.

Or maybe it does. Maybe I missed all the good parts. But in my random sampling, all parts seemed generically equal, and as mentioned I couldn’t connect to any of it. My eyes moved mechanically across the text but I didn’t seem able to hook on to anything, and therefore absorbed nothing. I felt like I was ice skating.

I do feel like my cognitive bandwidth is somewhat reduced these days by the demands of parenting. I don’t have as much uninterrupted time to devote to a book. But in a sense that fractured mindset would seem perfect for reading a work like this.

Much is made of the violent and sexual content of this book, but I didn’t even notice that. To me, the form seemed to overwhelm the content entirely. On the one hand I found it interesting to encounter such an experimental approach, especially since I’m fiddling with a nonlinear narrative in a top-secret side project. But on the other hand I found the result soporifically boring. I’d call it a failed experiment.

This Re/Search edition features a commentary on the text by the author himself, running in the margins alongside the original. I found these comments paradoxically engaging.

And, given the accompanying illustrations and the intro by William S. Burroughs, I’d have no problem recommending this edition to anyone interested in avant-garde literature. But it’s not my cup of tea.

Published inBooks & Reading


  1. mike mike

    “I felt like I was ice skating.”

    I’ve read a shitload of ballard, and I would characterize that experience as a sign that you are in the zone he’s crafting. I love the guy’s stuff, it’s spooky and sealed up tight.

  2. At least in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (one of my favorite books) there is a cheat sheet in the back for how to reassemble the novel. This sounds just plain out there.

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