J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition and Trauma Narrative

After the materialism, political conservatism, Cold War paranoia, and oppressive social conformity of the “Fabulous Fifties”, the United States witnessed in the Sixties an unprecedented change and a new cultural consciousness, change propelled by the struggles for racial equality and social justice which the Civil Rights Movements started in the precedent decade. The literature of the 1960s figures a miscellaneous combination of politically engaged movements, such as second-wave feminism and the Black Arts Movement, and movements which, less directly committed, were nonetheless influenced by the historical moment, such as the Beat Generation and the New Wave in science fiction.

J. G. Ballard’s works position themselves in this New Wave of science fiction, and contribute to the genre in a new and experimental fashion. “The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth,” explains Ballard, “and it is inner space, not outer, that need to be explored” (197). Published in 1969, The Atrocity Exhibition makes of this task one of its missions, and explores the concept of inner space and its relation to the outer world–in this case the reality of the 1960s. However, it does so through the lenses of psychology, and neuropsychology specifically: “Fiction is a branch of neurology,” Ballard famously wrote.

Considering this statement, it is safe to assume that, in the spectrum of neuropsychology, The Atrocity Exhibition would classify for nervous breakdown and psychopathology. In fact, the way in which the novel captures and represents the reality of the 1960s is not objective, but radically distorted and based on trauma. However, it is valuable in its replication of the aspects of trauma which 1960s American cultural consciousness underwent by inserting trauma in both diegetic and formal aspects of the novel through the use of repetition, fragmentation, and intertextuality. Moreover, the novel’s reflection of cultural trauma is particularly powerful because these basic elements of trauma narrative, especially fragmentation, are also identified as being part of the source of the trauma.

First of all, it should be noted that the basic characterization of the protagonist allows for a particularly accurate exploration of trauma, as the protagonist is a patient at a psychiatric hospital who consciously descends into psychosis. Although he is also a doctor at the same hospital, the fact that Dr. Nathan regularly comments on his mental health, thus providing an accessible explanation of the situation to the reader, points to the fact that the protagonist is primarily a patient. Multiple critics (as Caruth, Crosthwaite, LaCapra, Whitehead, and Onega) have agreed on defining TAE as an example of “traumatic realism”. Whitehead’s description of the genre is useful in identifying trauma signifiers in the novel: she recognises the main characteristics of trauma narrative to be repetition, fragmentation, and intertextuality (84).

Repetition occurs on many levels and at many times throughout the novel, and strictly connects to Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion, which illustrates how traumatized individuals are always in a liminal state between departure and return (Martinez-Alfaro 183). In fact, the protagonist continuously and obsessively revisits the same images and situations, most notably car crashes and the death of celebrities such as John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. As Kunzru summarises in his introduction to the book, somehow sweetening this compulsion, “The Atrocity Exhibition is a melancholy book, fixated on something terrible that it can’t let go” (xviii).

The fact that there is no character development throughout the novel makes it possible for this repetition to be almost perfect. The lists of loosely associated concepts and objects that the protagonist makes to combine sense out of something retain, throughout the book, exactly the same detached and precise tone. As an example, these are two extracts from the first and the last one: “(1) Spectro-heliogram of the sun; (2) Front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London; (3) Transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite” (1), and “(a) the mouth parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson” (167).

Fragmentation also occurs on many levels and at many times throughout the novel. Even on a superficial level, narration is highly fragmented. The novel is composed of 15 chapters which the author termed “condensed novels” and which have a degree of independence from one another. In fact, some of them had previously been individually published on science fiction magazines and become popular on their own (Walls). They are in turn divided into a number of sub-paragraphs which figure a title and can be as disconnected from each other as the chapters are. Moreover, the protagonist’s own identity seems to not be united and coherent: his name undergoes small changes every chapter, and Perry and Wilkie argue that this reflects the uncertainty of his true identity. As they explain, in every chapter he is referred to in connection to different things: he is loosely identified as a scientist, a lecturer, a former H-bomber pilot, a patient with a nervous breakdown, an instructor in the institute, and someone connected to space flights.

Lists are another compelling example of the protagonist’s obsession with fragmented images and his attempt at making sense of existence by seemingly randomly combining them. These images are mainly taken from the world of American culture which mass media makes available, and are most prominently connected to the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, movie celebrities, US Presidents, and pornography. The protagonist is particularly haunted by images of violence, such as the Vietnam War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. These images are the same which created cultural shocks in the tissue of American culture in the Sixties.

The powerful effect of the media on the individual mind is exemplified throughout the novel by the merging of two landscapes, the internal one and the external one. This strong image highlights the extent to which the individual consciousness is traumatized and abused by televised violence and, more generally, the media, which is to the extent of being almost conquered by it, and driven to insanity. Paddy well summarises this, stating that the “private realms of the inner self have been invaded by the landscapes surrounding it” (115). The merging of these two landscapes is alluded to throughout the novel by making reference to Surrealist works of art by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. However, intertextuality does not merely take place at this more superficial level of narration by means of explicit references, but also becomes a feature of the protagonist’s way of thinking, illustrating the pervasiveness of his trauma: the protagonist’s internal landscape is identified with Dali’s painting “The Persistence of Memory” twice in the novel, in the paragraphs “The Persistence of Memory” (24) and “The Persistence of the Beach” (59).

The Atrocity Exhibition is then a good example of “traumatic realism”, or trauma narrative, as it incorporates the three basic literary signifiers of trauma. Repetition, fragmentation, and intertextuality are essential features both of the protagonist’s identity, way of thinking, and actions, and of the structure, subdivision, and narrative techniques of the novel. These three elements serve throughout the novel to highlight the psychosis which the protagonist suffers from, but also point to the source of the trauma at the same point, which seems to be the televised violence of the media in the 1960s.

In this way, the protagonist’s consciousness comes to stand for individual consciousness in an age of relentless, repeated media bombardment of fragmented images which include, above all, violence and pornography, and comes to stand more broadly for the traumatized American cultural consciousness. TAE provides valuable insight into the experiences of national trauma which the United States underwent throughout the Sixties, but does not capture the reality of the time in a way which is objective and not distorted. Or does it? Could it be that it was “ultimately a perfect mimesis of the actual condition of society and the human mind, a condition that would become apparent were we but to bracket our natural attitude”? (Winnberg 91).


Ballard, J. G. A User’s Guide to the Millennium. London: Harper-Collins, 1996. Web.

Ballard, J. G. “Does the Angle Between Two Walls Have a Happy Ending?” Advertiser’s Announcement “Sex: Inner Space.” Ambit Magazine 33 (1967). Web.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 4th ed. London: Fourth Estate, 2016. Print.

Kunzru, Hari. “Introduction.” The Atrocity Exhibition. 4th ed. London: Fourth Estate, 2016. Print.

Martinez-Alfaro, Maria Jesus. “‘A Terrible Beauty’: Ethics, Aesthetics and the Trauma of Gayness in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.” Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction. Brill Academic Publishers, 2011. Web.

Paddy, David Ian. “Psychic Imperialism.” The Empires of J. G. Ballard: An Imagined Geography. Canterbury: Gylphi Limited, 2015. Web.

Perry, Nick, and Roy Wilkie. “The Atrocity Exhibition.” The Riverside Quarterly 6.3 (1975). Web.

Walls, Richard C. “Atomized Artifacts: J. G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition and the End of History.” Science Fiction Eye 8 (1991). Web.

Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Web.

Winnberg, Jakob. “‘A New Algebra’: The Poetics and Ethics of Trauma in J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition.” Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction. Brill Academic Publishers, 2011. Web.



Did her BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, and is currently doing her MA in English and American Modern Literature in Cork. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.