I’ve known about J.G. Ballard’s work for a number of years but it really took him dying last April to get his stuff fully onto my radar. Yes, I had seen David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Crash when it came out back in 1996, and I remember leaving the theatre with the verdict “it lacked focus” being about the nicest thing I could say about it. But finding a cheap paperback edition in a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago, I decided to give the novel itself a try.
Now I realize that Ballard holds the distinction of England’s most successful purveyor of a new-fangled sort of science fiction, of what we might call on this side of the pond “speculative fiction”, of the sort of postmodern writing that French critics get all moist about. And Crash is arguably his most famous novel, at least of his novels written in that vein. The protagonist is postmodernistically named “James Ballard” and the story revolves around the connection between sex and car crashes. Following a vehicular accident that leaves him scarred but also sexually awakened, Ballard is introduced to the perverse world of one Robert Vaughan, a man with an unhealthy obsession with automobile crashes and longs to end his life in a head-on collision with the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Ballard and Vaughan move through the novel having all manner of sex in their cars with a string of wives, prostitutes and mistresses – all of whom are little more than orifices to capture their overflowing pleasure. The novel, erm, climaxes in predictable fashion with Ballard and Vaughan having sex with one another – in a car, natch. Vaughan is later killed in a botched attempt to run his vehicle into Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine; he accidently jumps a rail and crashes into a busload of innocent tourists instead.
The thematic structure on display here is pretty easy to spot: the isolation of technology and its connection to the isolation of loveless sex. We get that. But a sure-footed theme is not enough if the novel fails to embrace other tenets of good fiction. The biggest issue with Crash is the presupposition that lies at heart of its thesis: that there is some innately erotic relationship between a car crash and sex. The gaping, twisted metal, the labial yawn of a shattered grill, the concussive bang of read-ender, the protruding gear shift between your legs – it’s all supposed to remind us of the clinical anatomy of fucking. I didn’t get it. I’ve never once been exposed to a car crash and felt even the slightest hint of sexual connection. And I don’t think it’s just me – there really isn’t anything inherently sexual about a car crash. Not even a little. But without that suspension of disbelief, without the reader willing to embrace this most absurd of presuppositions, the novel falls apart. In Kafka, we get that Gregor Samsa woke up a bug; we buy into that construction before the end of the first page. In Crash, Ballard goes off in his own loony direction without ensuring that his readers are, erm, along for the ride.
The problem is that Ballard spends so much time assembling his thematic structure that he doesn’t concern himself too much with characterization. The character Ballard, as well as Vaughan and the women they fuck, move through the novel with only the most crudely primitive motivation. After the umpteenth description of semen spurting across the dashboard, of someone settling “her vulva over his penis” in the backseat of a Ford, I began to ask myself – What exactly is at stake in this story?
The answer, sadly and finally, is nothing. As important as postmodernists will find this novel’s themes for decades to come, its story and characters disappear quickly from the discerning reader’s consciousness after the last page. Rather like exhaust from a tailpipe.