“I’ve had enough, enough of you/enough to last a lifetime through.”
When the reviewer’s reaction to finishing Crash, the novel, are those lines from Crash, the pop song by The Primitives, you might be forgiven for expecting a scathingly negative review. Well, it’s not so simple. There’s no doubt about it, though – Crash is a tough read. Ballard described it himself as a “pornographic novel based on technology”, and it reads just like one. A group of people who’ve been in life-threatening car crashes develop a bizarre and highly-dangerous sexual fetish for them, and the (limited) plot stops on about every other page to give you lovingly detailed descriptions of how that works, sex with open wounds, bodily fluids on various parts of car interiors, amputee fetishes and all. The bodily fluids include “rectal mucus”, which I have to admit is a new one on me, if it does actually exist.
So, if you look at it in terms of the old school essay question of whether the author achieved what he was trying to do – yeah, he did. J.G. Ballard set out to shock, and he did it, to the extent that the novel is still capable of being shocking 43 years after publication. How many novels that were once notorious for their sexual content can you say that about? From the perspective of 2016, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Well of Loneliness don’t seem particularly shocking any more, and Ulysses is an accepted classic, so no-one mentions the sexy bits (or actually reads the novel). Crash hasn’t lost that power.
The nearest comparison I can find is with the works of the Marquis de Sade, still beyond the pale after 200 years, and that’s not all they share. De Sade liked to rub humanity’s nose in its own awfulness (as he saw it), and in this novel, so does Ballard. Don’t look for characters you can root for in Crash. Even the people in the background aren’t very sympathetic.
Mentioning “novels notorious for their sexual content” leads neatly on to another significant point about Crash. It’s both shocking and dated, and part of why it’s dated is that the very idea of “the controversial (but serious) novel about sex” has itself largely run its course. Of course, publishers still try to use that as a publicity angle. They tried to do that with Fifty Shades of Grey, but I don’t think anyone thought for a moment that it had anything significant to say about sado-masochism, or represented some kind of challenge to social mores. Ballard was writing only a decade or so after the Lady Chatterley trial (and even more to the point, only a few years after his own previous book, The Atrocity Exhibition, was the subject of an obscenity prosecution). Trying to point out exactly how weird human sexuality could get and the hypocrisy involved in pretending otherwise was still a motivation for some writers.
Crash is dated in more specific ways, of course. When your big symbols of modernity are cars, airports, arterial roads and industrial estates, you can tell your novel must be set some time between the ’50s, when those things started to be built or become available to the masses, and the ’80s, when computers and everything that has since flowed from them started to be the literary symbol of modernity. Crash is post-war, but pre-digital.
Actually, you can get more specific than that. The central characters, Jim and Catherine Ballard (yes!) have, even before car-crash fetishism, one of those relationships in which they both have sex with a lot of other people and neither of them really take offence. Of course, some people still try to live like this now (see my earlier post on polyamory), but never has this been more cool and aspirational than it was in the late 60s – free love and so on. I think that’s part of the point Ballard is making, both extrapolating from current trends and, perhaps, suggesting exactly how screwed up that might get. Even before they both go completely off the rails, Jim and Catherine are weirdly hyper-sexualised. They, and the other characters, are the Swinging Sixties gone to hell, really. Groovy, baby.
And it can be argued that even by its publication in 1973, Crash was getting a little bit dated. It’s noticeable that when the characters talk about memorable celebrity deaths in cars, they talk about James Dean, Albert Camus, John F. Kennedy (with a lampshade properly hung on the lack of an actual crash there) and Jayne Mansfield. Apart from the last of those, those others are all deaths from the ’50s or early ’60s. J.G. Ballard was in his early 40s when he wrote the book, and there is a slight air of “middle-aged man thinking stuff from a decade ago is still contemporary” at some points. Another is when Ballard very insistently establishes the airport everyone spends half their time driving around as “London Airport.” It was re-named “Heathrow Airport” in 1966.
For all of that, Crash has survived. It’s survived its squickiness, its dated-ness, its thin plot and its demands on your suspension of disbelief (the main characters hang around accident sites, take pictures of injured victims and wrecked cars, eventually outright stalk celebrities and each other, and this provokes almost no police interest). Apart from the still-powerful shock factor, a lot of this is down to Ballard’s great success in predicting the future, which is less common in science fiction writers than you would think. There are no men on Mars, faster than light travel has turned out to be impossible and the world hasn’t become subject to super-states under Stalin-style totalitarianism.
Actually, no-one who isn’t a potential candidate for Broadmoor gets off on killing people in car crashes either, but if you want to find sex irretrievably enmeshed with technology, you only have to look as far as the medium you’re reading this on. People may not fetishize the internet, but they certainly use it to enhance their sex lives in various ways. In that sense, Ballard was a true prophet, and prophetic works have a habit of staying around.