It has been a few weeks now since the last meeting of my work book group. My reticence can be partly blamed on my latest archives assignment (just three to go now!) and partly on the subject of discussion itself. Crash by JG Ballard was a difficult book to read, a difficult book to talk about and, I anticipate, a difficult book to write about. The controversial subject matter is well-known. A television producer called James Ballard becomes sexually fixated on the injuries and deaths of car-crash victims after surviving a collision of his own. During the course of the novel he meets several other similar obsessed people: Vaughan, a veteran of motorway pile-ups; Gabrielle, a severely injured crash victim; and Seagrave, a rally driver determined to kill himself in an accident. The story, such as it is, follows Ballard's descent into seedy underworld of car-parks, tunnels, expressways and overpasses, populated by prostitutes and cars endlessly in transit. His friendship with Vaughan leads to his observing and taking part in increasingly depraved sexual acts, some of them involving his own wife and the widow whose husband was killed in his own crash. The narrative is determinedly and unrelentingly vile. Ballard (the author) injures, degrades and dehumanises his characters in every possible way. Not a chapter passes without some horrible incident of sex and death. One particular scene, in which Ballard (the character) and Gabrielle have sex in her disibility car is almost inconceivable and yet, given the nature of what comes before it, inevitable.
The prose is mostly bland and deadeningly repetitive. Ballard studs his text with a handful of key phrases and terms, so that every second sentence includes the words 'instrument binnacle', 'wound', 'radiator grill' or 'sex act'. I found the experience of reading it exhausting, like humming the same short grating tune over and over again. Just turning the pages was an emormous act of will; when I wasn't disgusted, I was bored. By the end, I was bored even when I was disgusted. The reactions of my fellow-book groupers were mostly a variation on this theme, although some were more extreme than others. One thought it a completely worthless piece of trash, an exercise in controversy designed to impress readers simply by virtue of being shocking and repellent. She felt almost too strongly to discuss it at all, and admitted that she had only skim read it because she felt obliged to do so. It was generally agreed after this confession that none of us would have finished the book if we'd picked it up outside of the group, despite its brevity.
Still, we were all compelled to examine the book's cult status and search out some meaning or purpose in it. What was it about the book that had kept it in print since its release in the 1970s? Surely not just its prurient shock-value? We discussed its moral implications, and talked about whether or not Crash was a cautionary tale, making an explicit connection between the coldness of technology and emotional poverty in society. For example, in the novel Ballard and his wife have sex while watching news reports about war and famine on television, so that a connection is established between arousal and pain or cruelty. The ubiquity of these images is such that we become immune to their horror and and have to seek out increasingly visceral nastiness to illicit any emotional response. Ballard's apparent inability to perform sexually without an element of woundedness (emotional or physical or both) is representative of the same immunity. His psychosis is the symptom of a simple and yet terrifying boredom of his life, his job and his marriage. His near-death crash is the most powerful, and real, experience he has had, and he is compelled to seek sexual satisfication in rehearsing it over and over again. This is a potentially acceptable reading of the book, but I didn't find it entirely convincing or satisfying and neither did some of the others. First, because JG Ballard himself has repeatedly warned against reading Crash as a story with a moral. Second, because the narrative itself seems to caution against it. The story is certainly about the way humans and technology interact, meld and conflict but there is no sense in which its characters grow or learn from their experiences. If we read it is as a moral tale, I believe that is only because we are too appalled by the central concept - of being sexually aroused by death - to concede it is an end in itself.
We attempted several other explanations. One book-grouper (the only one of us who had read Ballard before) remembered that Ballard had once said how surprised he was that critics and readers took his work so seriously. She suggested that perhaps the book was just one big joke on us - Ballard is laughing at our sensitivity and our credulity. We all found this idea interesting. Perhaps the endgame of Crash was not to shock us, but to make fun of how easily and how simply we are shocked by something so patently ridiculous. I must admit that I did laugh a couple of times while reading it: some of the scenes were so ludicrously nasty, and so disgracefully, impertinently written, that it did seem impossible that JG Ballard was serious. But another member made the point that reading Crash this way, as a big raspberry in the face of our prudishness, didn't make it a good novel. In fact, it made it a rather adolescent sort of novel.
I thought that if there was anything that could redeem the book it was its unreliable narrator, and suggested that Crash was an exercise in postmodern trickery. The book is narrated entirely by its main character, Ballard, whose evident and worsening psychosis makes him a thoroughly unreliable witness of events. He shows us a world in which everybody he knows, from his wife to the prostitutes he picks up in carparks to the nurses who care for him in hospital, are aroused by cars and car crashes. Even their smallest actions, from the way they walk to the way they flex their wrists, confirm this to him. Everything we know about their thoughts and emotional experiences is passed through him, like meat through a grinder. Thus, it occured to me at the end of the novel that the whole narrative, and everybody in it apart from Ballard, is either a dream or a distortion. Vaughan, for example, is never a real sort of person. He turns up wherever Ballard is, in surreal confluences of events, and the things we learn about his life beyond the motorway are often contradictory. Similarly, Catherine Ballard's complicity in her husband's fetish is only ever asserted by him. The infamous 'car-wash' scene, in which she has violent sex with Vaughan in the back of Ballard's car while he watches, presents her as a consenting party. But I was not the only one to suggest that, if the incident did happen at all, it was just as a likely a rape, committed by Vaughan with only Ballard's enthusiastic consent. By the end of the book her confused terror at her husband's condition is patent to everybody but the narrator himself. The postmodern implication is so obvious it's clumsy. If Ballard the character is 'making everything up', then surely it is no accident that he shares a name with Ballard the author who is, literally, making everything up? JG Ballard once claimed in an interview that he gave the character his name to 'anchor the story in the real world', but I suggested that the opposite is true. The main character is called Ballard because Ballard is foregrounding the basic unreality of the novel as a form. Why are we taking anything he writes seriously?
We went on to discuss how shocking Crash would have been in the 1970s, and whether it has lost any potency today, and concluded that its shock value was still equal but its moral (if we were to agree it had one) is quite old and obvious. Somebody wondered whether we were all so familiar with the idea that technology corrupts sexually because of Crash, and were unaware of its enormous influence on our thought patterns. We also talked a bit about how Crash wasn't really shocking or original at all and suggested that its central tenets were basically recycled from Freud's theories about the relationship between sex and the death drive. Finally, there was some discussion about how the book had affected our impression of Ballard himself and whether it had put us off seeking out his other work. Opinion on this point was divided, with some people swearing off Ballard completely and others interested in reading at least another novel in search of a more balanced view. For my own part I'd incline towards the latter, but in a theoretical sort of way. Which is to say: given the choice of reading something else it is unlikely I'll be picking up more Ballard in the near future.
Next month: Kazuo Ishiguro's story-cycle Nocturnes.