Impossible to rate or even classify this weird and disturbing book from the late '60s (it's not a novel, it's not a collection of mini-novels, it's not even a psychological treatise, though it has aspects of all three). It explores the links between death/danger and sexuality (his own wife had died suddenly a few years earlier). Parts of it will be thought obscene by many. It reflects Ballard's interests in psychoanalysis and surrealism: the very structure of the book is surreal. All of this makes more sense after reading his far more accessible autobiography, "Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton"
It is a non-linear narrative, divided into "chapters", of which each paragraph is a self-contained nugget, with its own title. In an introduction written more than 30 years after first publication, Ballard suggests readers scan a chapter for headings that catch their eye, and if they find them interesting, to move on to nearby ones, so maybe one approach is to list a selection of paragraph titles, out of sequence?
journeys to an interior
some bloody accident
the realization of dreams
contours of desire
an existential yes
the conceptual death
questions, always questions
hung among the corridors of sleep
the impossible room
the geometry of her face
the lost symmetry of the blastosphere
My edition includes Ballard's extensive notes, without which much of it would be impenetrable (and not just the pop culture references) - though perhaps it would be less disturbing without them.
There's little point trying to describe the "story" or characters, but it does involve one who monitors how subjects react to scenes of car crashes as a proxy for (well, in addition to) his own life and experiences: "the eucharist of the simulated auto-disaster". Many other characters explore predilections on the boundaries.
There are many mentions of celebrities and events that were significant at the time (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, assassination of JFK, the space race), surrealist and pop-art artists (especially Dali), Freud, and overall it shows that although Ballard decided not to pursue a career as a psychiatrist, he was still very interested in the field.
Some elements are weirdly prescient, whether in a societal sense (the "banalization of celebrity... an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup", and that the Vietnam war becoming a rich vein for cinema), or in his own life and works: this was written in '67, published in '69, and in '70, Ballard did actually put on an exhibition of crashed cars in London, and in '73, he published "Crash", which is a more conventional novel, exploring the same themes. The real exhibition provoked strong, violent and sometimes strange reactions in ways that the same vehicles on the street outside would not. Most bizarrely, a model hired to interview visitors whilst she was naked, said, after seeing the exhibits, that she would only do it topless.
Much of this is challenging and controversial. For example, saying in the notes that "Pornography is a powerful catalyst for social change, and its periods of greatest availability have frequently coincided with times of greatest economic and scientific advance", but fearing a new puritanism in the 1990s. Personally, I think it's more complicated: our society is simultaneously very sexualised (e.g. sexy underwear for pre-schoolers) and also paranoid about child abuse to the point that the damaging effects of that exaggerated fear may outweigh the risks.
In the end, Ballard sometimes it goes too far for me and I actually stopped reading just over half way through. Sexual tastes that I don't share are one thing, but rape is referred to several times, often with an apologist slant, "Her strong stride... carried within its rhythm a calculated invitation to her own sexuality" and although I know there are valid debates about the nature of paedophilia and whether there are grey areas, it's not something I choose to explore in any detail.