J.G. Ballad’s controversial 1973 novel. I read a Picador paperback borrowed from a friend (Thanks, man – I almost spent $15 on this one).
1 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Seen the Movie: Yes. In fact, I own the movie. It works much better than the book.
James Ballard, a forty-year-old television commercial producer, becomes obsessed with car crashes after killing a man (and nearly losing his own life) in an accident.
I debated whether it was worth making a post for this one and not just slapping Crash on my 10 Worst Read this year and calling it a day. As I said with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (review), there’s no point writing a review if nothing constructive can come of it. Let’s see what we can get out of Crash.
I’ll start with the compliments: Ballard knows how to write. He knows exactly what he’s doing and is in complete control. Some early passages read like poetry; an incredible mix of organic elements described clinically and inorganic elements infused with life. Until around page 30, I was blown away by what was being presented and ready for the story to get rolling. But by page 30 you have all you’ll get for the next 200 pages. Ballard beats you with a thesis and never switches to plot. He wants to watch your reaction as he rubs your face in biological fluids: semen, vomit, urine, faeces, bile, pus, mucosa, blood (I kept waiting for menstrual blood but he incredibly missed that one).
We’re told on the first page that Vaughan will die in a crash. Everything that comes after simply leads back to that point without any surprises on the way. Unless homosexual sex during an LSD trip is your definition of mind-blowing, Crash can’t be enjoyed for its literal plot. It’s simply worthless. It’s ready-made for ambitious literary types to dissect and reconstruct – applying the merging of sexuality and technology and the ability for humans to fetishize anything to our modern age. Vehicles are the physically largest and most powerful device that most humans get the opportunity to control. Most of us never imagine using them for anything other than their intended purpose. All that power that people never explore. We’re fascinated by wrecks – the speed and brutality, the ability for a single vehicle to change and end the lives of others. And everyone who travels on the road – as driver or passenger – is playing the largest game of Russian Roulette every moment. I get it. I get the symbol of the car. I get that you can push many buttons by forcing people to get down close and look at wounds and scars and distorted sexuality. But I also expect the relationship between author and reader to have some respect at its core.
Crash is like a guest slapping you in the face in your living room until they decide they’re finished. Some people might be all right with that. They may even find it an interesting experience. I turn against authors who can only communicate through abuse.
During the last weeks of his life Vaughan thought of nothing else but her death, a coronation of wounds he had staged with the devotion of an Earl Marshal.
Earl Marshal is a hereditary royal officeholder and chivalric title under the sovereign of the United Kingdom. He is the eighth of the Great Officers of State in the United Kingdom.
The marshal was originally responsible, along with the Lord High Constable, for the monarch’s horses and stables including connected military operations. The position of Earl Marshal has evolved and among his responsibilities today is the organization of major ceremonial state occasions like the monarch’s coronation in Westminster Abbey and state funerals.
At the time of Crash’s publication, the Earl Marshal was Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard (1908 – 1975), who inherited the title in 1917, when he was nine. He organized the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the funeral of Winston Churchill, and the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.
Their tight faces and strained thighs were lit by his polaroid flash, like startled survivors of a submarine disaster.
During his studied courtship of injured women, Vaughan was obsessed with the buboes of gas bacillus infections, by facial injuries and genital wounds.
noun – a swollen, inflamed lymph node in the armpit or groin.
gas bacillus – any of several bacteria that form gas in wounds infected with them.
On the deserted roof of a Northolt multi-storey car-park I waited by the balustrade.
Northolt is a town in north west London, 11 miles west-northwest of Charing Cross and within the London Borough of Ealing, England. Essentially a suburban development, it features Grand Union Canal, the A 40 road, and a history of pony racing.
 Ballard’s word choices can be absolutely gorgeous:
The long triangular grooves on the car had been formed within the death of an unknown creature, its vanished identity abstracted in terms of the geometry of this vehicle.
He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrhages of their brain tissue beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reaction vessels. Vaughan devised the massive rear-end collisions of sworn enemies, hate-deaths celebrated in the engine fuel burning in wayside ditches, paintwork boiling through the dull afternoon sunlight of provincial towns.
Lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen.
I don’t know why Ballard jettisons this poetry after the first 30 pages. I have two guesses: (1) Ballard continues to write gloriously throughout the book; my impatience with the plot just made me numb to it, or (2) As Ballard moves from broadly describing his and Vaughan’s world to the intensely specific, the language loses the opportunity for a poetic element, turning Crash into an almost instruction-manual series of actions:
He lifted her on to him, pressing his penis frontally into her vagina, one hand under her right armpit, the other below her buttock, in the same handholds that the ambulance men had used to lift the young woman from the car.
I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics.
noun – (dated) – an ill-defined medical condition characterized by lassitude, fatigue, headache, and irritability, associated chiefly with emotional disturbance.
During my first hours in Ashford Hospital all I could see in my mind was the image of us locked together face to face in these two cars, the body of her dying husband lying between us on the bonnet of my car. We looked at each other through the fractured windshields, neither able to move.
 This is the closest to humor Ballard ever gets:
Two wards of twenty-four beds – the maximum number of survivors anticipated – were permanently reserved for the possible victims of an air-crash.
I expected wryness from this premise, self-awareness, winking, biting satire. Basically, I thought I was getting a variation of DeLillo’s White Noise, which manages to evoke existential death-panic between insanely good bits of humor. Ballard has no sense of the innate absurdity of his characters throughout this book and that’s a problem.
 It takes a while to get any information about our narrator. The first autobiographical information he gives us is:
My work at the television commercial studios in Shepperton.
…and then, lo and behold, we get his name and find it’s the same as the author’s:
“You’re going to drive? But your legs – James, you can barely walk!”
“Come in here, Ballard – they’ll be longer than the Remington girl imagines.”
The influence of Crash can be seen in the narrator and themes of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (though I’d argue that Fight Club did everything Crash set out to do a hundred times better). Palaniuk echoes some key elements:
The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years.
We had heard nothing of Vaughan since he had taken my car from the garage. Increasingly I was convinced that Vaughan was a projection of my own fantasies and obsessions, and that in some way I had let him down.
The small but determined drone of her light aircraft crossed the sky over our apartment each weekend, a tocsin that sounded the note of our relationship.
noun – an alarm bell or signal.
A middle-aged woman with the small face of a corrupt doll.
This bogus commiseration over the dead man irritated me, merely an excuse for an exercise in moral gymnastics.
The vagal flushes that seized at my chest.
Relating to the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve or CN X, which interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tracts.
After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident.
The same unseen sexuality hovered over the queues of passengers moving through airport terminals, the junctions of their barely concealed genitalia and the engine nacelles of giant aircraft, the buccal points of airline hostesses.
(p.40 – 41)
noun – a streamlined housing or tank for something on the outside of an aircraft or motor vehicle.
the other casing of an aircraft engine.
(historical) – the car of an airship.
adjective – (technical) – relating to the cheek.
relating to the mouth.
“You should have gone to the funeral,” I told her.
“I wish I had,” she replied promptly. “They bury the dead so quickly – they should leave them lying around for months. I wasn’t ready.”
Her rapt gaze reminded me of the Italian governess employed by a Milanese account executive with whom we had stayed one summer at Sestri Levante.
(p.45 – 46)
Sestri Levante is a town and comune in Liguria, Italy. This once quiet fishing village is slowly turning into a tourist hotspot, developing an old and new town.
I stroked the warm belly of her thigh through a tear in the crotch of her tights.
All the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.
As exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade.
British term for pinball machine.
Each of the hundred parking spaces was filled, the lines of windshields reflecting the sunlight like a glass testudo.
In the breaker’s yard, a testudo of abandoned cars lay together in the ever-changing light.
noun – (in ancient Rome) a screen on wheels and with an arched roof, used to protect besieging troops.
a protective screen formed by a body of troops holding their shields above their heads in such a way that the shields overlap.
Overhead, the engines of the airliners taking off from London Airport wearied the sky.
The exaggerated mouldings of the instrument binnacles.
noun – a built-in housing for a ship’s compass.
Her serious student’s eyes barely paused at the photograph of a swollen corpse that filled a complete page.
As anonymous as a vitrified scar in a fossil tree.
verb – convert (something) into a glass or glasslike substance, typically by exposure to heat.
He no longer followed me, but seemed to hover like an invigilator in the margins of my life.
verb – to keep watch.
(British) – to keep watch over students at an examination.
At the far end of the asphalt yard was a truck whose entire driving cabin had been crushed, as if the dimensions of space had abruptly contracted around the body of the driver.
I remembered visiting the Imperial War Museum with a close friend.
Imperial War Museums (IWM) is a British national museum organization with branches at five locations in England, three of which are in London. Founded as the Imperial War Museum in 1917, the museum was intended to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War. The museum’s remit has since expanded to include all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces have been involved since 1914.
The blurring perspex of the cockpit canopy.
Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), also known as acrylic or acrylic glass as well as by the trade names Plexiglas, Acrylite, Lucite, and Perspex among others is a transparent thermoplastic often used in sheet form as a lightweight or shatter-resistant alternative to glass.
The untouched, rectilinear volumes of this building fused in my mind.
adjective – contained by, consisting of, or moving in a straight line or lines.
(Photography) – relating to a straight line or lines.
(Photography) – (of a wide-angle lens) corrected as much as possible, so that straight lines in the subject appear straight in the image.