The definitive cult, post-modern novel - a shocking blend of violence, transgression, and eroticism. When our narrator smashes his car into another and watches a man die in front of him, his sense of sexual possibilities in the world around him becomes detached.
As he begins an affair with the dead man's wife, he finds himself drawn, with increasing intensity, to the mangled impacts of car crashes. Then he encounters Robert Vaughan, a former TV scientist turned nightmare angel of the expressway, who has gathered around him a collection of alienated crash victims and experiments with a series of erotic 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.
First published in 1973, Crash remains one of the most shocking novels of the second half of the 20th century and was made into an equally controversial film by David Cronenburg.
©2011 J. G. Ballard (P)2011 HarperCollins Publishers Limited
"Britain's number one living novelist." (John Sutherland, Sunday Times)
"One of the few genuine surrealists this country has produced, the possessor of a terrifying and exhilarating imagination." (Guardian)
Written in 1973, Crash may be one of the most difficult books you ever read or listen to. The author bravely names his protagonist 'Ballard' and then slowly evolves him as a man who, after being in a car crash, grows erotically obsessed with them and the damage they do to bodies. He become a member of a group who are all aroused by the violence of car crashes and the transformation effected by cataclysm to both human body and machine.
The story does harken back to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in a way. It is a critical look at our obsessive love affair with popular technologies and contrasts this with the ephemeral nature of flesh. Not only does the novel contain almost pedantically detailed descriptions of the exteriors and interiors of cars, but the story is set around Heathrow Airport, outside London. And there are repeated references and allusions to planes, jet engines and a general obsession with the metallic, the mechanical and the modern.
There is also a focus on the idea of celebrity. One of the central figures in the novel is Dr. Robert Vaughn, a former TV-scientist, with whom he finds an affinity in his own erotic obsession. The doctor carefully plans out his own death in a head-on collision with the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Ballard constantly uses extremely graphic but very clinical language for sex. And be warned, there are very graphic descriptions of unconventional sex acts all the way through the novel. For someone accustomed to reading modern erotic fiction, this is jarring.
I'm uncertain as to whether Ballard chose to consistently use clinical terms for sexual organs in order to imbue the story with a taint of medical fetishism, to attempt to portray sexual situations in graphic detail while using terms that would be considered the least likely to arouse the reader, or because he was simply not comfortable using more colloquial language. My guess is that his choice to use the more clinical terms was purposeful. I don't see Ballard being particularly queasy about 'rude' language and this was written well after Miller and Nin were published and widely read.
I don't think it is possible to appreciate this book unless you keep in mind the context of the time and place in which it was written. Ballard sets it in a very grey and mundane post-war Britain. His characters are driven by an existential emptiness and boredom to "a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology".
This is really not a novel for those in search of a comfortable read. It is purposefully extreme. Moreover, the banality and lack of authentic emotion with which the events are described will, I think, leave most listeners with a great many questions. The novel has no redemption and it might be considered a fundamentally amoral narrative. It requires reader or listener to be actively critical and analytical as the book is read. But the reward for maintaining that distance is to allow the reader to ponder some extremely important social questions about our relationship with technology, our love of celebrity, and our capacity for alienation.
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