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Crash (1973)Author: Simon Sellars • Sep 17th, 2006 •
“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.”
If The Drowned World was the book which cemented Ballard’s literary reputation (in Britain, at least), then Crash was almost certainly the one which made him a non-entity in America’s eyes. Following on from publisher Nelson Doubleday’s outrage at an earlier Ballard story, ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, Crash ensured JGB remained on the periphery of the US sci-fi scene.
In any case, it is doubtful whether this is ‘science fiction’, in the traditional sense. It tells the story of the narrator, ‘James Ballard’, the ‘hoodlum scientist’ Vaughan, and a supporting cast of curiously one-dimensional characters, as they follow their peculiar obsessions along the hyperreal motorways of England. Tuned in to police radios, they descend on the scenes of car crashes, depositing their semen and vaginal mucous on torn flesh and twisted metal. Ultimately, Vaughan desires ‘a union of semen and engine coolant’, splattered in world-wide ‘autogeddon’.
Crash epitomises Ballard’s ‘death of affect’ theories — it is Inner Space in perpetual motion. The media landscape, with its aestheticising of violence, is the novel’s main character. The car, the first and still most recognisable symbol of mass production, provides the eternal metaphor.
Crash was Ballard’s first novel in seven years (The Crystal World from 1966 was the last). Of course he’d been busy writing short stories during that time, and because of that concentrated span many people regard Ballard’s strength as being in the shorter format, even though he’s written novels exclusively for the last 20-odd years.
Crash was the real deal, though, a savage, cool, clinical sex-and-technology masterpiece. Here, Ballard got everything absolutely right: the attitude, the language, the vision, the metaphor (death of affect; media landscapes; dehumanisation), all colliding in a prescient headspin that still has the power to enhrall 32 years on.
I’d argue that Crash saw the first appearance of Ballard’s fully blown ‘catalyst figure’, Vaughan himself, an archetype which Ballard seems to refine in every one of his latter-day novels: the dark, mysterious urban professional liberating the middle-classes by feeding their deepest, darkest psychopathological fantasies.
I have the 1995 Vintage version, with the following blurb:
The cult status of CRASH has intensified since its original publication in 1973, making it a classic of underground literature. In this hallucinatory novel, the car provides the hellish tableau in which Vaughan, a ‘TV scientist’ turned ‘nightmare angel of the highways’, experiments with erotic atrocities among crash victims, each more sinister than the last: ultimately, he craves a union of blood, semen and engine coolant in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor.”
There’s a quote from Malcolm Bradbury of the New York Times Book Review on the back cover:
A writer of enormous inventive powers, J.G. Ballard has, like Calvino, a remarkable gift for filling the empty, deprived spaces of modern life with invisible cities and the wonder worlds of the imagination.”
Crash is, of course, a staple text in university critical-theory courses; in the 1990s, it was very highly prized indeed. Baudrillard wrote an essay about it, academics overanalysed Ba(udri)llard, and JGB himself accused them all of being “trapped inside their dismal jargon”. Read Nicholas Ruddick’s summary of the aftershock here:
As he gazes at the contemporary scene, Baudrillard notices the same cultural symptoms that Ballard does—affectlessness, apparently meaningless circulation, the sense of impending catastrophe. It is no wonder that Ballard celebrates Baudrillard’s brilliant reading of American culture in America (1986). But whereas Baudrillard celebrates—even if ironically—the “marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts” on American roads (America 5), or America’s orgiastic and ecstatic indifference as a “radical modernity” attained (96-97), for Ballard there remains the project of exposing the real (unconscious) desire beneath the debauch of fiction. Baudrillard the hyperrealist is at his best consciously a poet of the surface of things. In this he is a postmodernist par excellence, and this is, it seems to me, why Ballard, for whom such surfaces are equally fascinating but also terrifying for what they conceal, is so ambivalent toward him. It is surely this ambivalence that causes Ballard to attack, in his “Response to the Invitation to Respond” to Baudrillard’s essays, not Baudrillard, but postmodernism itself.”
Nicholas Ruddick. ‘Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard’.
+ Read Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash.
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