J. G. Ballard, Crash
Form and function, deformation and dysfunction
I think we should get one thing out of the way first. For me, there is nothing erotic about a car or a motorway. The place in popular culture of the car in particular as sexual icon has always bemused me. In fact, I’m really rather ambivalent about cars. This matters when discussing Crash, the 1973 novel by JG Ballard that resumes this strand of posts about his novels. (You can read about The Drowned World here, The Drought here and The Crystal World here).
The genius of Crash is that premise of people deriving sexual gratification from cars and car crashes. Anyone you talk to about it will give a response in between one of “oh that’s weird” and “oh that’s gross”. My own response was something like that too, a sort of morbid curiosity (it was the first Ballard novel that I read) and the true art of the novel is how the writing really draws you in.
In discussion of Crash much is made of how Ballard’s medical training supposedly contributes to the detached style in which events are recited and how this is done in very anatomical detail. It has to be said that Ballard also spent time as an erotic writer and it is the echoes of pornography that contribute more to the prose style in Crash. He knows precisely how to present his scenes so that the perverse and the terrifying become fascinating and engrossing, he understands how to transmit the sensation of sexual fascination.
I say most of this with a fourteen year remove from the direct sensation of reading it for the first time. That was a hot summer between my two years in sixth form college where all that seemed to exist was this novel and the hot sun. It was a guilty pleasure that I now feel the same way about as most people who have read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. Crash grips you in a metallic vice of crushed automobile and takes advantage of you being trapped there, reciting its litany of sexual horrors while you are unable to look away.
Ballard’s skill is to allow almost every aspect of the narrative to be infused with this moto-eroticism such as the descriptions of landscape: “the flyovers overlaid one another like copulating giants, immense legs straddling each other’s backs” (p. 59). It is a touch overwritten in places, sometimes things leap out and strike me as being a bit too wry for their own good and reading it now I found it harder to be convinced by the characters and their motives than when I was seventeen.
As such, I wasn’t really able to re-read it to write this post and that is why it has taken so long for me to get anything out of it to write about. I read isolated pieces from the book, some of which I remembered from the first time and some of which seemed unfamiliar. As an exercise in gauging the change in my responses over time it was certainly amusing and valuable, though I shall have to try again later with a novel that I will actually be able to read again in full. Perhaps Hard-boiled Wonderland And The Edge Of The World by Haruki Murakami would be a good choice, I read it seven years ago while spending a week in bed having submitted my MSc dissertation and I still remember it fondly.
The next two novels in the Ballard sequence will also be fairly tough, Concrete Island is the story of a man marooned on a motorway intersection and High Rise relates the descent into anarchy of the residents of a luxury tower block. Of course I shall have to persevere with reading these. I’ll begin with Concrete Island as soon as I’ve dispatched Kraken by China Mieville - expect a review of that soon.