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Book Review: Crash by JG Ballard

Updated: May 23, 2021

Like many others my first introduction to Crash was via the David Cronenberg 1996 screen adaptation, a rendition it is fair to say that received mixed reviews at the time. As the instantly forgettable 2015 version of High Rise would later prove, adapting Ballard for the big screen could be a screenwriter's worst nightmare.

While I would always advise reading the book before the film adaptation, with Ballard it is absolutely imperative to do so. In fact, it's probably best to give the movie a miss altogether. As far as a JG adaptation is concerned, watching rather than reading is tantamount to tasting the carne sin the chilli, the ice sans the cream.

Reading Ballard is to delve deep into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Ballard's world is Darwinism on acid, a technologically advanced swamp whose dwellers are nevertheless primal, driven purely by desire and whom the author watches with a detached at times derisive eye. For Ballard human life is a zoo, with the squire of Shepperton cast in the role of somewhat wry zoologist.

All of which leads me to Crash. Following a fatal motorway accident which he causes, television commercials producer James Ballard (nice touch JG) becomes involved with a certain Vaughan, a man obsessed with automobile crashes or more precisely the fetishisation of man and machine. Vaughan has a rather bizarre wish: to die in a car crash with the actress Elizabeth Taylor in what he hopes will be a ritualised act of violent carnality.

Caution required, because Crash delights in exploiting the contrast between the soft lushness of human flesh and the hard, metallic masculinity of the car. The book thus almost drowns under mucosal secretions - blood, semen, vaginal fluid (not forgetting copious amounts of vomit) as, under Vaughan's tutelage, Ballard discovers the auto-erotic possibilities of the automobile for himself. A trained doctor, Ballard the author knew the human anatomy well - and it shows. For here is a novel that could just as easily have been entitled 'Blood and Semen.'

As such this novel paints a stark view of humanity. Led by the epicene Vaughan, a band of obsessives seek to transcend the drabness of existence, a thrill-seeking quest that will lead to the ultimate high: the amalgamation of flesh and metal in a choreographic mangled death-crash.

Re-reading Crash is always a disorientating affair. As far as taste goes, let's just say it's acquired, reassuringly acquired. If you like your fiction neat, tidy, explicable and your heroes and heroines knowable, then this book will likely disturb and unsettle in equal parts. If graphic descriptions of sodomy offend, then you might be well advised to stick with something less challenging, James Herriott or Enid Blyton perhaps. If, however, you fancy a walk on the wild side then buckle up for an extraordinary ride.

As commentary on the vapidity of late capitalism, Ballard takes the reader into some very dark places. If you can't stand the heat, you'd be well advised not to go into this particular kitchen. Characters are listless, restless and without much to recommend them. They are products of the age - the age of commercialism, the age of superficiality, and, above all else the age of egocentrism.

Though true to a certain extent, criticism revolving around repetition of motifs and passages (e.g. underpass descriptions) can be seen as indicative of the characters' obsession and the claustrophobic, alienating world they inhabit. Like Ballard (fictional character) and Vaughan, this novel is relentless, obsessive. If all this leaves one feeling hollow, then J G's time has not been wasted.

Crash will leave an indelible mark upon your mind, much like the imprint of an automobile crash. Unabashed, brave and utterly breathtakingly unique, you will never in your life read anything quite like this book.

A nightmarish masterpiece.