REVIEW: Crash by JG Ballard

When J. G. Ballard, our narrator, smashes his car into another and watches a man die in front of him, he finds himself drawn with increasing intensity to the mangled impacts of car crashes. Robert Vaughan, a former TV scientist turned nightmare angel of the expressway, has gathered around him a collection of alienated crash victims and experiments with a series of autoerotic atrocities, each more sinister than the last. But Vaughan craves the ultimate crash—a head-on collision of blood, semen, engine coolant, and iconic celebrity.

Warnings: graphic depictions of violence/violent ideations, stalking, abuse, self harm, death, mentions of underage sex

Category: M/F, M/M

Crash is an infamous literary novel by prolific novelist JG Ballard, centering on the lives of a group of people who’s experiences with accidents have fostered a deeply sexual paraphilia for car crashes. Both it and the movie adaptation were wildly controversial when they came out, eliciting scathing reviews and campaigns for banning and censorship. Despite this, it remains a fetish classic that depicts, in a very raw kind of way, a look into deviant sexuality, trauma, and the human condition.

Ballard’s prose is calmly clinical. He plays the narrator here, his namesake telling the story in first person of his car accident and the changes to his sexuality that followed. While the main thrust of the prose is centred on Ballard’s thoughts and feelings of eroticism in conjecture with cars and crashes and the slowly evolving way that he sees sexuality and the human body, the main narrative progression is centered around the character Vaughan, and his sexual exploits. And as a driving force (hah), he is the character that initiates and instigates the wildly violent progressions of everyone else’s actions, pushing fantasy into the realm of reality. All of this is fascinating, if disturbing to watch unfold, especially given Ballard’s rather cold appraisals of concept and situation. It doesn’t read flowery or romanticized, but rather machine-like in it’s tone and quality, which furthers the experience of the concepts of the marriage of machine with human sexuality. That said, it can be rather repetitive and automated at times, with various phrases being repeated over and over throughout the book; “the keys to a new kind of sexuality” and “blood, semen and engine coolant” are phrases that will be read over many pages, and I found myself wondering if this subject matter may have suited a novella a little better, as it could certainly have been pared down.

Emotional connection to these characters is not really the point of the narrative, and as such I can’t really fault the fact that we never really connect to any of them on an emotional level. There is a description within the book at one point about the voyeuristic nature of the fetish being more about anonymous cardboard cut outs in interactions with the vehicles and not about people themselves, and that rings true from the way the entire novel is written. In a layer that is perhaps a little meta, we the reader are the voyeur, observing nothing more than anonymous humanity in bizarre fetish configurations.

Of all the characters we meet, Vaughan is the one with the most charisma, certainly, and Ballard has in him created a very compelling kind of sexual sadist. He’s reprehensible in every way; a stalker, manipulator and abuser and eventual attempted murderer, but we come to find him, as the narrator does, fascinating and alluring. There is something about his unapologetic dedication to the chasing of his own pleasure that is attractive, and much like a car crash, he is hard to look away from. However, the book does end up drawing uncomfortable parallels between deviant sexuality, mental illness, and dangerously frightening behaviour, which is not exactly the message I’d like to see sent. “People with weird fetishes are mentally disturbed and/or stalkers and murderers” is an unfortunate conclusion one might draw from the book, even if it may not have been it’s intent. Using deviant sexuality as a metaphor for the ills of human society isn’t, for obvious reasons, my favourite trope.

That said, the fact that many people can come out of traumatic situations and experiences with the development of new sexual fetishes is not untrue either, and the fascinating exploration of Ballard’s sexuality after having a near death experience in a car crash is very well fleshed out.

The world of Crash is barely existent, which is an interesting world in and of itself. The only things that really exist within it’s confines are cars, motorways, sex and bodies, and everything else is set pieces designed to give the illusion of these characters existing within our world. Ballard’s clinical prose can make the setting feel hollow, and the extreme focus on only one aspect of life (or, rather, the marriage of two: driving and sex) gives us intense close up detail on that, but blurs into the background literally everything else. The setting, then, becomes the book’s subject matter, which is an experience that makes the book feel a little like sexual surrealism.

There are three kinds of erotic content in this book, sex, cars and crashes, and both mingled into one. These kinds of scenes have overlap, and the most fascinating thing about it is the sexual fixation on not just crashing and violence but on the cars themselves as sexual objects. Various pieces of cars are described like sexual organs while people’s bodies are conversely described like cars. The fixation on the violent injuries resulting from crashing is brutally matter of fact, and viscerally uncomfortable in the most interesting of ways, as are the fantasies involving the deaths of various people. It can in fact read quite necrophilic in it’s obsession with death and dead and/or wounded bodies. It certainly paints a vivid picture of the experience of a sexual attraction and arousal that has little to do with sex and people and more to do with the object of the fetish. As Ballard continues engaging with his fantasies, he is frequently unable to become aroused without a car being involved, and finds that his growing attraction to Vaughan, despite being straight with no prior bisexual proclivities, is all to do with his embodiment of the fetish. This rang rather true to my own experiences; that a fetish makes sex a more intellectual than physical pursuit.

While this book does read very much like a fairly typical “middle aged man reflects on his life and sexual experiences” lit novel, the subject matter of the content makes it undeniably a unique read. Ballard is famously quoted, about this book, as saying that in writing it he wanted to “rub the human face in its own vomit, to force it to look in the mirror” and whether you see in this book a very erotic depiction of car and injury porn, or an existential musing on the nature of humanity, it is at the very least like nothing else I have ever read.

Have you read Crash? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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