Scanning the freakish oeuvre of J.G. Ballard for common characteristics, one finds, among other things, a proclivity for uncommented-on outrageousness. Thus High-Rise (1975), plunges the reader into a scene of ongoing depravity with its notorious opening line: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment complex during the previous three months.” The provision of recognizable reader surrogates is generally neglected in Ballard’s hermetic environments, where the most unlikely developments are greeted as grim inevitabilities. Immediacy and impermeability are Ballardian signatures; the reader’s shock is preempted rather than courted; voices of sanity are not silenced but unaccommodated. Postmodern disillusion never had a more committed epitomist.
Ballard’s 1973 exercise in erotic lunacy, Crash, offers the purest and most intense example of the author’s methods. It is also the rare novel whose summary neatly captures its tone: this is a book about people who get off on automobile accidents. The idea is sufficiently original that one can picture the entire novel unfolding in Ballard’s imagination in the moment of conception. Unburdened by precedent, the author has a whole highway of horrors all to himself, and it is Ballard’s fiendish achievement to enumerate every roadside abomination.
The novel opens with a kind of obituary for the man who will turn out to be its guiding spirit, a deformed “TV scientist” (whatever that is) named Vaughan who dies while attempting to crash his car into Elizabeth Taylor’s limo. It is through Vaughan, we are told, that the narrator (named after Ballard himself) “discovered the true significance of the automobile crash, the meaning of whiplash injuries and roll-over, the ecstasies of head-on collisions.” So far, so ludicrous. The reader’s skepticism, however, is given little room to maneuver before it is blindsided by a caravan of perversities. On page two we are invited to picture the semen of a car-crash victim “emptying across the luminescent dials” of his instrument panel as they “registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine.” Lest this profluence of semen and blood over-literalize the Freudian connection of eros and thanatos, the more ambiguous fluids of the internal combustion engine are pumped into these pages in equal measure. The idea that cars can be deadly is hardly original, and the fact that some cars are sexy is indisputable. But what about crashing them into each other, is that sexy? Not exactly, Ballard says. Collision, however, has sexual connotations, discernible at any race track or Fast and Furious spin-off. The repeated enactment by Ballard’s protagonists of an abstraction may strike us as preposterous, but that doesn’t invalidate the abstraction. If anything, it tends to clarify it.
After introducing us to Vaughan, the novel circles back to a time before the narrator had met his fellow catastrophist. James Ballard lives with his wife Catherine in an anonymous apartment block near Shepperton Studios where James works in some unspecified capacity. Driving home one evening, James loses control of his vehicle and collides head-on with a car carrying two passengers, a woman and her husband. The husband is instantly killed, his body “propelled through his windshield like a mattress from the barrel of a circus cannon.” The woman, a doctor, is injured but survives. James is also injured, but for him the experience is oddly epiphanic. “An uneasy euphoria,” he tells us, “carried me to the hospital.”
Unless the morphine has already been administered, this is, to put it mildly, a fairly counterintuitive response to high-impact collision. It’s not that James is an unreliable narrator. Ballard’s protagonists are generally straight-shooters, with the real insanity reserved for the narrative itself. If anything, James is too impartial. As he is lifted onto a stretcher, James notes with prophetic dispassion, “Already I was aware that the interlocked radiator grilles of our cars formed the model of an inescapable and perverse union between us.” A gauntlet of sorts has been thrown atop the engines of the high-octane libidos fueling our main characters. When James finally meets Vaughan, we sense the formation of a love triangle. If it is a measure of Ballard’s subtlety that the reader cannot tell if the third party is the narrator’s wife or Vaughan’s vehicle, it is surely a testament to Crash’s audacity that the latter possibility is hardly out of the question. Certainly Vaughan is the greater influence on James than his wife Catherine. Moreover, with Vaughan, James even exhibits something approaching intimacy, which the largely transactional relationship with his wife notably lacks. During their peculiar courtship, James joins Vaughan on a tour of a crash-test laboratory. The experience cements their friendship and constitutes Crash’s most memorable – and most disturbing – sequence.
A sedan is loaded at one end of the laboratory track with a family of four dummies: mom, dad, daughter, and son. At the other end, a motorcycle, mounted by a mannequin named “Elvis,” revs its engine. As the motorcycle is launched toward the family sedan, its four occupants are found “sitting up stiffly as if en route to a chapel meeting.” In a novel filled with violence inflicted on real people, it’s ironic that the most unnerving set-piece should involve plastic stand-ins. The inhumanity of the dummies increases the pathos of their predicament by reducing their capacity for resistance. The accident is over in seconds, but the visitors are invited to watch it again in slow-motion video. Ballard’s prose decelerates to relish the balletic trajectories of metal and flesh. “A fountain of spraying crystal erupted around [the family of mannequins], through which, as if in celebration, their figures were taking up ever more eccentric positions.”
This is as good – or as bad – as it gets when it comes to Ballardian lyricism. None of the other books that I have read by the author comes close to Crash’s attention to detail and metaphorical richness. This has more than a little to do with the boldness of Crash’s conceit. Here, the idee fixe of technological alienation which animates most of Ballard’s bibliography is apotheosized by a premise sufficiently outrageous to enlist and exhaust all of the author’s rhetorical resources. The result can be deeply unsettling:
The driver of the car had rebounded off the collapsing steering wheel and was sliding beneath the column into the lower compartment of the car. His decapitated wife, hands raised prettily in front of her neck, rolled against the instrument panel. Her detached head bounced off the vinyl seat covering and passed between the torsos of the children in the rear seat. Brigitte, the smaller of the two children, lifted her face to the roof of the car and raised her hands in a polite gesture of alarm as her mother’s head struck the rear window and cannonaded around the car before exiting the left-hand door.
The risk Ballard runs by structuring a whole book out of the relentless visualization of violence is not entirely one of reader repulsion (although that’s certainly a danger) but more frequently, monotony. The hazard is skirted – barely – by the precision of the prose, which causes us to savor the kinds of gruesome details that a cruder style would make merely repellent. Where the reader is normally inclined to flinch, this author lovingly lingers. Ballard tears into his material with understandable abandon; he is an explorer on an untrammeled continent, sampling never-before plucked metaphors and similes. “The pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies.” “This web of chromium knives and frosted glass.” “An homunculus of blood, semen, and engine coolant.” One wishes in vain that lifespans were longer so that Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Ballard’s compatriot antecedents might have lived to behold the dismaying culs-de-sac into which he rammed the sputtering English novel.
The main question which bedevils novelists – is this interesting? – invariably leads back to the quality of the prose. Whatever else good writing may tell us, it is the leading indicator of the author’s interest in his own material, the sine qua non of audience interest. The fastidiousness with which Ballard lavishes Crash might be contrasted with the inattentiveness which undermines much of the writing in his dystopian novel, Hello America (1981). This later work, which is concerned with an expedition to a blighted and depopulated United States some hundred years in the future, reads like a litany of cliché and musty dialogue. “She’s standoffish now in her moody way.” “The captain’s complex motives unsettled him.” “Wayne sat up with a guilty frown. Had Steiner read his thoughts?” “‘Professor Summers, calm yourself.’” If it’s a little cheap to cherry-pick clunkers this way, Ballard does much of the work for us by stocking an entire book with them.
Equally revealing are the kinds of inaccuracies which a more careful editor would have caught and a more engaged writer wouldn’t have made. The town of Yonkers is referred to as “Jonkers;” there’s a store called “Macy’s Fifth Avenue” not Saks; sand dunes run “as far as Bowery Park,” not Battery Park; George Washington’s Virginia plantation is confused with a suburb of St. Louis called Mount Vernon. At some point, Judy Garland is referred to as “the girl from Kansas City.” This happens to be neither Garland’s hometown (she was born in Minnesota), nor that of the character Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to which Ballard seems to be clumsily alluding: Dororthy’s from the state of Kansas, and Kansas City is in the state of Missouri. What this chiefly shows is not laziness per se but the boredom that precedes it. The wan premise of Hello America forfeits our attention by failing to retain that of its author.
Crash‘s closed-off world moots historical inaccuracy, and its strangeness is too rich to allow its author’s energy to lapse. Moreover, as the entanglements of his characters become more bizarre, Ballard’s writing becomes more controlled. In Crash, wherever sex is most outlandish, its execution is most rote; the prose with which wanton acts are described has the impartiality of an accident report. James’s reaction to watching Vaughan sodomize his wife during a visit to a car-wash is entirely aesthetic. “I wanted to adjust the contours of her breasts and hips to align with the roofline of the car.” In Lolita, another depraved motorist, Humbert Humbert, demonstrates the extent of his ardor by lamenting the inadequacy even of satiety: “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.” Although Humbert is by far the greater criminal, he is also more disquietingly human than Ballard’s characters, whose insatiability is mostly in service of an idea. If James, Vaughan, and Catherine can’t get enough of each other, it is merely because they haven’t exhausted their repertoire of machine-based contortions. In Crash, we are what we drive.
Crash culminates not with Vaughan’s death but with an acid-fueled liaison between James and Vaughan on a nighttime motorway. The LSD is, I think, Crash’s most glaring misstep. It is superfluous to what is already a very trippy encounter and I wonder if it had something to do with the author’s discomfort with unembellished homosexuality. What’s really notable about the scene is its tenderness. Unlike the feverish hook-ups which preceded it, this final outing is sad and elegiac, as if James already knows that this is the end of the road for Vaughan. Earlier, picking his comrade up at the airport, the narrator notes his mentor’s “derelict and uncertain” appearance, “the look of an unsuccessful fanatic, doggedly holding together his spent obsessions.” Is this Ballard the writer slouching towards the finish-line? Not exactly. The author still had the towering brutality of High-Rise and the Beckettian solitude of Concrete Island (1973) ahead of him, to say nothing of the autobiographical outlier Empire of the Sun (1984). But if Crash is a distillation of the author’s twisted propensities, it also explodes them. Here, Ballard’s theme and story are, for once, exactly aligned.