Crash

by J.G. Ballard

Essay by Ted Gioia

This disturbing novel is often classified as science fiction,
though at first glance the label may seem unjustified. The
most advanced technologies described in this book are cars
and airplanes—and very conventional ones at that. Unlike
other Ballard books, such as
The Crystal World or The
Drowned World
, with their apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios,
Crash describes a world that apparently is just like our own.

Well, on second thought, maybe not.
The technology in
Crash may be
familiar, but the people can hardly
be from this planet. At the opening
of the book, the narrator (named
Ballard in the novel) describes his
recently deceased friend Vaughan,
who had a bizarre erotic obsession
with car crashes, automobile injuries
and motorway mishaps of the most
violent sort. This might be plausible,
but when we find that the narrator
Ballard is also fixated on the sexual
potential of car crashes, the reader
is doubtful that there are two such
sickos in the same town. But then we
are introduced to Ballard’s girlfriend Catherine, who also finds
auto collisions to be an oh-so-heavy-metal aphrodisiac. And
don't let me forget to mention Ballard’s sometime mistress
Helen Remington (they met when he killed her husband in a
traffic accident) who also gets aroused by—yes, you guessed
it—car crashes.

No, these are
not believable characters. I have spent a lot of
time driving on the roads over the years, and I can attest that
you are more likely to find a hobbit, a Hogwarts alum, and two
Dune sandworms in the car next to you, than this unlikely
foursome. By sheer Darwinian logic, people who need to slam
their vehicle into a bus in order to get aroused do not
propagate. Heck, they're lucky to live beyond the expiration
date on their DMV learner's permit.

These odd characters and their strange inter-relationships
are what give Crash the aura of a futuristic book. And their
envisioned Armageddon—or “Carmageddon,” as Ballard
prefers to describe it—may be as creepy as an attack by
Triffids or a virus from outer space, but it is the people
themselves, and not their technology, who make us uneasy.
The characters here represent something new in fiction; the
nihilism of, say, Bazarov in Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons
looks like Mister Rogers in comfy slippers by comparison.

But the technology is the focus of the writing, and no author
has ever lavished more sensually-charged adjectives on the
various parts that make up a typical car. The words of
devotion that Petrarch aimed at Laura, Dante at Beatrice,
are here targeted at steering columns, toggle switches and
radiator grilles. Much of this prose is unsettling, even
sociopathic. Then again, some of it is quite lovely. No
matter what your objections might be to the values espoused
by this novel—and if you have no objections, don’t expect to
date my daughter—you will be forced to admire the sheer
sweep and daring of the writing. Of course, you will probably
also get nauseous from time to time before you have reached
the grand finale of this paean to a crash test dummy
philosophy of life.

Here is a taste:
The lungs of elderly men punctured by
door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on
steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on
the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these
wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a
perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung
in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a
slaughterhouse
. . . . Or how about this: The car crash is a
fertilizing rather than a destructive event.
And how about a
nice aphorism to append to your emails:
They bury the dead
so quickly. They should leave them lying around for months.  
No, these are not isolated passages taken out of context (trust
me, the context only makes it worse), but rather typical
extracts from a very atypical novel.

If you like edgy, this is definitely edgy. Even so, a sociopath
is a sociopath, no matter how well he writes. And the
character named Ballard who narrates this story is sick in the
head, and needs some treatment. I won’t pass judgment on
that other fellow named Ballard who wrote
Crash. Maybe he
is just offering us an oblique critique of contemporary mores.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a screw or two loose too.

In an interesting postscript, Ballard was involved in his only
serious automobile accident in February 1972, two weeks
after completing
Crash.  A tire blowout forced his Ford Zephy
across the center divider, the impact causing a rollover, with
his vehicle sliding upside down in the oncoming lane.  
Fortunately no other car was involved in the accident, and
Ballard's injuries were minimized by his use of a seatbelt. It
was "an extreme case of nature imitating art," he later
commented.  Then added: "Curiously, before the accident
and since, I have always been a careful and even slow driver,
frequently egged on by impatient women-friends."
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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Childhood's End

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Some of Your Blood

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Lord of Light

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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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