by J.G. Ballard

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This disturbing novel is often classified as science
fiction, though at first glance the label may seem
unjustified. The most advanced technologies described
in this book are cars and airplanes—and very
conventional ones at that. Unlike other Ballard books,
such as
The Crystal World or The Drowned World, with
their apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios,
Crash describes a
world that apparently is just like our own.

Well, on second thought, maybe
not. The technology in
may be familiar, but the people
can hardly be from this planet.
At the opening of the book, the
narrator (named Ballard in the
novel) describes his recently
deceased friend Vaughan, who
had a bizarre erotic obsession
with car crashes, automobile
injuries and motorway mishaps
of the most violent sort. This
might be plausible, but when
we find that the narrator Ballard
is also fixated on the sexual potential of car crashes, the
reader is
doubtful that there are two such sickos in the same
town. But then we are introduced to Ballard’s girlfriend
Catherine, who also finds auto collisions to be an oh-so-
heavy-metal aphrodisiac. And don't let me forget to
mention Ballard’s sometime mistress Helen Remington
(they met when he killed her husband in a traffic
accident) who also gets aroused by—yes, you guessed
it—car crashes.

No, these are
not believable characters. I have spent a
lot of time driving on the roads over the years, and I
can attest that you are more likely to find a hobbit, a
Hogwarts alum, and two
Dune sandworms in the car
next to you, than this unlikely foursome. By sheer
Darwinian logic, people who need to slam their vehicle
into a bus in order to get aroused do not propagate.
Heck, they're lucky to live beyond the expiration date
on their DMV learner's permit.

These odd characters and their strange inter-
relationships are what give Crash the aura of a futuristic
book. And their envisioned Armageddon—or
“Carmageddon,” as Ballard prefers to describe it—may
be as creepy as an attack by Triffids or a virus from
outer space, but it is the people themselves, and not
their technology, who make us uneasy. The characters
here represent something new in fiction; the nihilism of,
say, Bazarov in Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons looks like
Mister Rogers in comfy slippers by comparison.

But the technology is the focus of the writing, and no
author has ever lavished more sensually-charged
adjectives on the various parts that make up a typical
car. The words of devotion that Petrarch aimed at
Laura, Dante at Beatrice, are here targeted at steering
columns, toggle switches and radiator grilles. Much of
this prose is unsettling, even sociopathic. Then again,
some of it is quite lovely. No matter what your
objections might be to the values espoused by this
novel—and if you have no objections, don’t expect to
date my daughter—you will be forced to admire the
sheer sweep and daring of the writing.
Of course, you will probably also get nauseous from
time to time before you have reached the grand finale
of this paean to a crash test dummy philosophy of life.

Here is a taste:
The lungs of elderly men punctured by
door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on
steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn
on the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To
Vaughan, these wounds formed the key to a new
sexuality, born from a perverse technology. The
images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind,
like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse
. . . . Or
how about this:
The car crash is a fertilizing rather than
a destructive event.
And how about a nice aphorism to
append to your emails:
They bury the dead so quickly.
They should leave them lying around for months.  
these are
not isolated passages taken out of context
(trust me, the context only makes it worse), but rather
typical extracts from a very atypical novel.

If you like edgy, this is definitely edgy. Even so, a
sociopath is a sociopath, no matter how well he writes.
And the character named Ballard who narrates this
story is sick in the head, and needs some treatment. I
won’t pass judgment on that other fellow named Ballard
who wrote
Crash. Maybe he is just offering us an
oblique critique of contemporary mores. But it wouldn’
t surprise me if he had a screw or two loose too.

This article originally appeared on
the crystal world

by J.G. Ballard

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Collins English Dictionary has added the tern “Ballardian”
to its lexicon, defining it as follows:

Ballardian: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born
1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or
suggestive of the conditions described
in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp.
dystopian modernity, bleak man-made
landscapes and the psychological effects
of technological,social or environmental

It is worth noting that most of the science
fiction novels that have “crossed over” to
become accepted as literary masterpieces
have emphasized the Ballardian aspects of
their narratives.  We have Orwell’s
1984, Huxley’s Brave
New World, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,
Cormac McCarthy’s
The Road, and (of
course) the novels by the ultimate Ballardian author, J.G.
Ballard, who continues to inspire not just lexicographers
but a host of fans with his provocative oeuvre.

Ballard was perhaps more influenced by surrealism and
William S. Burroughs than by Hugo Gernsback and
Amazing Magazine.  As a result, his writing is completely
free of the pulp fiction trappings that degrade so much of
what passes for sci-fi.  The closest equivalent in fiction to
The Crystal World may, in fact, be Joseph Conrad’s Heart
of Darkness
which, like Ballard’s novel, tells the tale of a
visitor into the depths of jungle who stumbles into an
unexpected and nightmarish encounter with the dark side.

English doctor Edward Sanders arrives at river port city
in Gabon, from which he hopes to journey to a leprosy
treatment center.   But he hears of a mysterious disorder
that is spreading through the jungle.   Some type of virus is
transforming the landscape, its contents and inhabitants
into crystal.  Little can be done to counter this terrestrial
cancer, although jewels seems to have some power to
liquefy the crystals.  

Other writers would highlight the global pandemic, and
focus on the effects of this virus spreading to London,
New York, Paris, Moscow and the like.  But Ballard keeps
doggedly fixed on the intimate and personal nature of this
situation.  Also, he relies on the malignity of the crystals
to inspire a type of icy landscape writing – a strange
transference of a picturesque arctic narrative into the
midst of the jungle.  

This is poised work by a fine writer.  Those raised on
bloodier and bolder Armageddon tales may find the
pacing slow, but readers who are coming to sci-fi after
long familiarity with literary fiction will enjoy Ballard as a
bridge between these two, often incommensurable,
conceptual fiction
Amidst a generation of British writers who wanted to shake things
up—an era of avant-gardists, class conscious rebels and the so-
called "Angry Young Men"—few writers shook harder than J.G.
Ballard (1930-2009).  His work encompassed everything from
the gritty autobiographical novel
Empire of the Sun to 'new wave'
sci-fi works.   These books were often disturbing, and Ballard's
1970 work
The Atrocity Exhibition was even the subject of a
censorship trial in the US.   Yet Ballard attracted a devoted cult
following, an unlikely alliance of punk rockers, bohemians and
writers on the fringe.   Few authors risked more or inspired such
strong passions, both yay or nay, than than this seminal figure.
Back to the home page
Below are mini-essays on two of Ballard's most memorable novels.  
remembering j.g. ballard (1930-2009)
See also:

J.G. Ballard: The Atrocity Exhibition