The Electronic Labyrinth

J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard has long worked with intriguing structures. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), for example, is composed of a series of highly compressed short stories which Ballard calls "condensed novels." These are linked thematically and formally. Short paragraphs, stripped of most of the novel's traditional machinery of logical, cause and effect narrative, clinically observe the breakdown of the modern psyche. The line between interiority and exteriority, between the fragmented consciousness of the central characters and the violent, mediatized world in which they live, collapses. The "death of affect," the loss of the capacity for an emotive response resulting from the overstimulation of the sensory apparatus in modern life, yields, in Ballard's always perverse logic, to a desire that is at once purely thanatotic and liberating.

Ballard's striking mixture of scientific detachment and obsession are evident in his use of such devices as itemized lists and a surrealist interest in collage as a narrative form:

"But isn't Kennedy already dead?" Captain Webster studied the documents laid on Dr. Nathan's demonstration table. These were: (1) a spectroheliogram of the sun; (2) tarmac and take-off checks for the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay; (3) electroencephalogram of Albert Einstein; (4) transverse section through a Pre-Cambrian Trilobite; (5) photograph taken at noon, 7th August, 1945, of the sand-sea, Quattara Depression; (6) Max Ernst's "Garden Airplane Traps." He turned to Dr. Nathan. "You say these constitute an assassination weapon?" (42)

Each chapter/"novel" covers much of the same imagistic ground as the previous sections. Locations such as cramped apartments, automobiles, and hospitals act less as settings than as iconographic symbols of almost alchemical significance. For Ballard, the automobile has all the poetic resonance of Malory's Grail or Yeat's gyre. Similarly, the names of pop icons (Jackie Kennedy, Ralph Nader, Jayne Mansfield), surrealist artists (Bellmer, Ernst, Duchamp) and others are mentioned not only as part of the detritus of contemporary life, but its very substance.

The character about which these figures play (he could hardly be called the protagonist) is variously named Travis, Talbot, Traven, Tallis, Trabert, Talbert, Travers, etc. The haziness of his characterization, the blurred outlines of his figure, amount to a radical critique of the very notion of character, so central to the realist novel, as a unified, autonomous being.

The resulting sea of images breaks dramatically from the world view of The Book; Ballard's post-War Britain, like The Atrocity Exhibition itself, is a hypertext, a non-sequential space of heterogenous materials. The connections between these images must be made according to an ever more dangerous logic of submission and always at the risk of disconnecting completely.

Other stories by Ballard also experiment with hypertextual narrative forms. "The Index" is just that, the alphabetical listing of people and places for a book. But in this case we have only the index, the book itself no longer exists. From this remnant, arranged according only to arbitrariness of the alphabet, one can still discern the outlines of the story of a man who, like his biography, has been expunged from history.

"Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown" presents a single sentence with a footnote on every word. These footnotes make up the narrative. In 1992, Murry C. Christensen created a hyperbook from this story by combining the text with illustrations from Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté (1934).

See also: postmodernism and the postmodern novel.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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