An introduction to Crash

The subject and style of Crash has shocked and disturbed readers since its publication. Roger Luckhurst describes the writing and reception of J G Ballard's controversial novel.

Continual controversy

J G Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash has been a source of almost continual controversy since it was published. The book concerns a group of obsessives who find sexual excitement in car crashes and seek their ultimate pleasure in staging elaborate pile-ups on the menacing roads of west London. The narrator, who is called James Ballard, is fascinated by the hoodlum intellectual of this group, Vaughan, who embraces a new philosophy of self-fashioning through the ecstatic combination of modern psychology with the artificial technological environments of the car and the motorway system. There is no ‘natural’ sexuality anymore, only these perverse situations, the insertion of the human into cybernetic systems that hold the promise of transporting us into new states of being. In the end, Vaughan becomes a literal embodiment of what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called the ‘death-drive’, the secret longing to return to the state of non-being.

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Ballard’s cover page for an early draft of Crash, c. 1970–71.

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Ballard develops a bland, neutral and unaffected style that clinically reports on this perverse and deathly logic with amoral detachment. For pages, the text can read like the findings of a bizarre psychology experiment. The prose has a hypnotic rhythm that accumulates lists of atrocities, and the stately advance of the clauses only further deadens the effect. One early sentence runs:

I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets; of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into the brick walls at the ends of known culs-de-sac; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complex interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together stoically in roadside industrial canals. (ch. 1)

How are we supposed to read a sentence like this? On the one hand, it is an impressive occupation of an extreme psychopathological state, driven by obsession. This is the discourse the book demands the reader to occupy. On the other hand, there is an impish quality to elements of this solemn prose that push it towards the absurd. Why do lesbian manageresses drive midget cars and die in front of middle-aged firemen? These adjectives seemed designed to sabotage the grave tone and push the long list of atrocities over the edge and into comedy. Are we in the realms of Swiftian satire, then, the straight-faced delivery of a modest proposal?

‘Beyond psychiatric help’

The controversy started even before the novel had been published. The reader’s report on the manuscript advised the editor that the author was ‘beyond psychiatric help’ (a description Ballard considered a measure of the book’s success and never tired of celebrating). Ballard’s previous book, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a collection of extreme experimental fictions, had included sections about celebrity deaths in car crashes, and focussed obsessively on the fatal attack on John F Kennedy’s motorcade. It horrified the American publishers, who pulped the entire run of the first edition, and in the UK a Conservative politician felt obliged to apologise to the Kennedy family on the floor of the House of Commons for any offence caused by the book. As part of his researches, Ballard had staged an exhibition of crashed cars at the Arts Lab in London in 1970. The violent reaction of the crowd at the opening (Ballard claimed that a rape in the backseat of one of the cars had been narrowly avoided) convinced the author that there was a new psychopathology emerging that required investigation.

Invitation card to J G Ballard's 'Crashed Cars' exhibition, 3 April 1970

Invitation card to J G Ballard's 'Crashed Cars' exhibition, 3 April 1970

J G Ballard interrogated his developing ideas about the cultural significance of the car in ‘Crashed Cars’, a provocative and controversial exhibition held at the New Arts Laboratory.

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Crash, the result of those researches, was so troubling because the neutrality of tone, assisted by the conflation of author and character, provides no position on the extreme events depicted. It provoked many readers to assert the moral position that they found entirely absent from the book. ‘A writer needs a moral viewpoint, some system of belief’, the critic Peter Nicholls complained. Without that, Ballard was ‘advocating a life style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself or those you love’.[1] But Ballard gave no help to readers seeking reassurance of authorial intention. In response to Nicholls, Ballard argued that the book embodied a ‘terminal irony, where not even the writer knows where he stands’.[2] The conflation of author and central character James Ballard was the signal of this complicity. Later, in the preface to the French edition, Ballard claimed that the book was ‘cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic, overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape’. However, in conversation with Will Self, he later entirely withdrew this claim ‘which I have always regretted … Crash is not a cautionary tale … It is a psychopathic hymn’.[3] Ballard leaves the reader high and dry.

'Ballard on Crash' from Cypher magazine

'Ballard on Crash' from Cypher magazine

‘The description of an obsession, an extreme metaphor at a time when only the extreme will do’: This October 1973 issue of Cypher includes an interview with J G Ballard about Crash, as well as a review of the novel.

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Copyright: © James Goddard

In France, the then fashionable sociological theorist Jean Baudrillard used Ballard’s novel as an exemplary fiction of a new condition of ‘hyper-reality’ and simulation, devoting a whole chapter to it in his important book Simulacra and Simulation (1981). For Baudrillard, we live increasingly only in mediated networks and the circulation of signs without reference. Baudrillard praised the way Ballard’s novel mixed the body and technology as ‘totally immanent – it is the reversion of the one into the other’.[4] The obsessive way that the characters watch and re-watch car-crash footage, re-stage it, and film themselves, helps to explain Baudrillard’s world of simulation. Baudrillard’s book was important for early theories of ‘postmodernism’ – although his chapter on Ballard was only fully translated into English in 1991. When it was finally translated, its uncomplicated celebration of Ballard’s perverse logic produced more controversy among academics scandalised by this amoral endorsement.[5]

In England, Crash took Ballard definitively out of the science fiction milieu with which his early work had been associated. Yet it is hardly a mainstream novel and kept company instead with the avant garde provocations of writers like William Burroughs (whom Ballard met and knew in the London counter-cultural scene of the late 1960s). It helped establish Ballard as a cult author, decidedly on the cultural margins, until the surprise success of his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), about his childhood internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. For some readers, this retroactive discovery of childhood trauma explained Ballard’s fascination with the perversity induced by the conditions of the modern world.

The Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

The Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

Crash bears influence from American Beat writer William S Burroughs. J G Ballard read this Olympia Press edition of The Naked Lunch (1959).

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Crash afterlives

In 1996, the Canadian horror film director David Cronenberg produced another controversy with his film adaptation of Crash. It divided opinion at the Cannes Film Festival, but its British release became caught up in a moral panic whipped up by pre-election political campaigns. The London Evening Standard declared the film ‘beyond the bounds of depravity’ and the Daily Mail called for it to be banned. The Conservative Minister for the Department of National Heritage advocated a ban, but the British Board of Film Classification passed it uncut, having commissioned research to investigate whether it might indeed deprave or corrupt its viewers. Since local councils made these decisions, London’s West End cinemas ended up in the strange position of Crash being banned in the Conservative-run Westminster, but passed by Labour’s Camden Council.[6] Needless to say, Ballard staunchly promoted the film and continued to advocate, in the same deadpan satirical way, for ever more sex and violence on screen.

It is sometimes said that the calculated outrage of avant-garde art is a limited tactic because shock has a very brief shelf life. Ballard’s Crash has, rather intriguingly, found a way of constantly renewing its ability to shock. In 2010, less than a year after his death, the Gagosian Gallery in London staged a large exhibition called ‘Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard’, featuring dozens of artists inspired by Ballard. The title of the exhibition indicated the centrality of Crash to Ballard’s continuing relevance to the art world. The ageing bad boys of the Young British Art movement, Jake and Dinos Chapman, even produced a facsimile of the 1970s paperback of Crash, from the lurid orange cover to the Ballard’s full text, although it had been manipulated, corrupted and redacted in the same way the Chapmans have graffitied Goya etchings. Like a joke they felt compelled to complete, they called their book Bangwallop.[7]

Revising Crash: Ballard’s manuscripts

Since J G Ballard’s papers were deposited in the British Library manuscript collections, it has been possible to trace the development of some of his key works. In interview, Ballard stated that he was sorry that he had not kept his initial treatment of the novel, his tendency to write analytic ‘reports’ first, stripped of most novelistic descriptions and dialogue. These do not survive – although he kept the invitation to his display of crashed cars and also carefully preserved the photographs of his own crashed car (an event that happened soon after he had completed the book as if in self-fulfilling prophecy). The two full drafts of the novel that do survive are themselves very interesting. There are many more lists of celebrities, dead and alive, targeted for car crashes (Pablo Picasso, Maria Callas, President Nixon, the car safety campaigner Ralph Nader, and Playboy owner Hugh Hefner). This list of the famous is closer in approach to the provocations of The Atrocity Exhibition. To name the character ‘Ballard’ was a late decision (the protagonist is called first Talbot and then Ballantyne, two names Ballard had used before). To increase the complicity, Ballard also changed nearly every instance of ‘my wife’ in the manuscript to ‘Claire’ – the name of his long-term partner. Each page is heavily revised in at least three different colours of pen, and he clearly worked hard to get the detached tone and the clinical distance right. Vaughan becomes less obviously psychotic and much more ambiguous. And it turns out that we can see how carefully Ballard worked on the precision of his prose mantra of atrocity. In the sentence I quoted earlier, the phrase ‘of lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars’, started out as ‘neurotic supermarket cashiers’ before morphing into ‘hyperthyroidal supermarket manageresses’ before hitting on a less obtrusive adjectival modifier to better create the unnerving balance of documentary and absurdity in the final version.[8] The revisions show how laboriously Ballard forged a path between the sublime and the ridiculous.

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Opening paragraphs from a draft of Crash, heavily revised by Ballard in blue and red ink, c. 1970–71.

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Footnotes

[1] Peter Nicholls, ‘Jerry Cornelius at the Atrocity Exhibition: Anarchy and Entropy in New Worlds Science Fiction’, Foundation 9 (1975), pp. 28, 31.

[2] J G Ballard, ‘Two Letters’, Foundation 10 (1976), p. 51.

[3] J G Ballard, ‘Introduction to Crash’, reprinted in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. by V Vale and A Juno

V Vale and A Juno
(San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1984), p. 98. The retraction comes in Will Self, ‘Conversations: J. G. Ballard’, Junk Mail (London: Bloomsbury, 1995), p. 348.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, trans. by S F Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 314.

[5] See the short responses collected to the first translation of this essay, particularly Vivian Sobchack, ‘Baudrillard’s Obscenity’, Science Fiction Studies 18 (1991), pp. 327–29.

[6] For details, see M Barker, J Arthurs and H Ramaswami, The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception (London: Wallflower, 2001).

[7] The catalogue for the exhibition, Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard (London: Gagosian, 2010). Bangwallop by ‘J & D Ballard’ was sold at the exhibition as a ‘multiple’.

[8] See British Library shelfmark Add MS 88938/3/8 (The Papers of James Graham Ballard: Crash: Two typescripts of Crash, both revised by hand, estimated 1970–71).

  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

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