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“The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator”

For hundreds of years, the idea of the social novel has been pretty simple; we tell stories about our lives and relations to greater understand the way things work, where we fit into the world. But in Douglas Coupland’s 1990s novel Generation X, Dag laments how “the world has gotten too big — way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it,” and this is reflected in the structure and content of The Atrocity Exhibition, a story dedicated to the insane (Ballard writes “I owe them everything”), and the insane world they stand as synecdoche for. With our everyday morality and knowledge of the world passed down to us by television, newspapers, and advertising, modern humans are no longer the passive receivers of knowledge the social novel aimed to reach. For Ballard, the only solution is to tell disordered stories of a world ruled by ever-increasing insanity.

In Ballard’s vision of the Western world circa 1969, life has become so warped by pop culture, relentless scientific progress and the information revolution that the novel’s mode of narrative shifts into an absurdist mix of celebrity culture, pop art, psychology, current affairs, and literature, no line of coherence pulling all these things together. Billboards of Sigmund Freud and Elizabeth Taylor stand over derelict concentration camps, and images of nuclear war, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Space Race intersect with bizarre descriptions of the interactions between different characters. Even Ballard’s notes for the introduction – “simply turn the pages until a paragraph catches your eye” – reflect the frantic pace of modern society, sifting through an endless tide of useless information. The Atrocity Exhibition reads like a dystopian picture of a world too crazy and complicated to tell ordered stories about.

-Joshua Ackerman

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