Saturday, 13 April 2019


Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

Going into "Crash" for the first time, I already had a distant familiarity with director David Cronenberg's 1996 film adaptation, which, even without the benefit of having read the book for myself, had always struck me as a truncated if still suitably provocative palimpsest of Ballard's text. Having now finished the book I'm perhaps better able to contrast and compare the experience of the two versions, with Cronenberg's film now appearing weaker, more inert and vastly more limited in its scope, imagery and psychology. This isn't to say that the Cronenberg film doesn't stand on its own merits, but rather, to do justice to the book, as an actual experience, the resulting film adaptation would have to be genuinely pornographic in order to fully capture how visceral, prescient and transformative the psychological study at the centre of Ballard's story actually is.

So much of the book's ability to confound, provoke and even disgust its audience, comes from the central conception of its characters finding sexual gratification through road accidents. While Cronenberg's film was controversial at the time of its initial release - actually generating the kind of ultra-conservative "ban this sick filth" tabloid outrage campaigns that are now the rhetoric of middle-class liberals afraid of being challenged or upset - it was too restrained, too polished even to put into images what the words of the book so daringly suggest.

Crash [J.G. Ballard, 1973]:

Throughout the book Ballard describes vehicular atrocity as if transcribing sex scenes from a hardcore porn film; finding something in the crumpled ruins of chrome and steel that's evocative of a genuine orgy of flesh and physicality. The fetishistic treatment of the automobile - in which the author goes to extraordinary lengths to describe each curve and contour of a car's bodywork (or the flashing lights and dials of the instrument binnacle) as if describing the corporeal form a current companion - is contrasted by the graphic physical descriptions of the human body locked in copulation. The association that Ballard creates between the two - which forms the central crux of the text - is intentionally graphic so as to humanise the automobile and to imbue it with an inherent physicality, while at the same time dehumanising the actual characters; reducing them to physical objects defining space.

For the protagonists of the book, who each seem to get drawn into the same strange auto-erotic delusion of self-discovery, it isn't just sex and death, or sex and injury detail that becomes the main preoccupation, but an actual union between the car and the human body. More specifically, the physical and psychological symbiosis between the car, and the destruction of it, and the human body and its own self-destruction.

What Cronenberg's film wasn't able to depict was the obvious associations between the visceral contrast of engine fluids and bodily fluids spurting out across vinyl interiors, or across the wet tarmac of an accident site. The contrast of the car, not just as a legitimate sex object, or icon of fetishisation, but the crash itself as a genuine act of intercourse. Ballad's book sees no distinction between the car crash and the act of coitous; they're both, in a way, presented as perverse encounters, of flesh against flesh, or metal against metal. The physical coming together of the two forms of the mechanical and the human, the organic and the synthetic. Penetrations across different forms.

Crash [David Cronenberg, 1996]:

One area where Cronenberg's film does arguably improve upon Ballad's source material is in its ending, which manages to convey the sense of hopelessness implicit in the book's image of civilisation; that existential, almost pre-apocalyptic feeling of dread and dissolution, of societal collapse. As the world and highways of the film become less and less populated, more empty and deserted, it's almost as if the disintegration of these characters' lives and their acts of transgression and self-destruction are a part of a wider cultural shift that's effecting the entire world. It captures the very 'Ballardian' notion of technology as a kind of virus or contagion; something that infects people, and drives them towards madness or acts of irrational violence. The ending of Cronenberg's film is fittingly absurd but grounded in an emotional plausibility. It has something tragic about it, suggesting the physical reunification between man and woman, husband and wife. It's much better and more affecting even than the book's ending, which I won't spoil, but which seems weakly symbolic by comparison.

However the film misses much of what makes the book relevant beyond its obvious sensationalism; the literal "car-crash" nature of its imagery and plot. For instance it never really feels like a character study. Because it loses the first person narrative of the book, its unable to place us in the thought-process of its central character. In the book, so much of the story can be read as kind of personal chronicle of obsession and mental collapse. There's an irony and self-awareness to the voice of this narrator, which is lacking in the film. There's an element of unreliability, which forces the reader to question how much of the book is a fantasy on the part of the protagonist, or if it's an actual attempt to make sense of something as destructive and irrational as an automobile accident (one that in this instance has resulted in the death of a fellow driver). In the book there is a strong implication that the character is dealing with unchecked issues of guilt, as well as obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, which are each leading him on a journey of self-destruction. Cronenberg's film lacks this important aspect while also neutralising the homosexual fantasies of the character, which he projects onto the scarred, similarly damaged figure of the obsessive Vaughn; the book's (sort-of) antagonist.

"Crash" isn't a book that I love as much as Ballard's subsequent works, such as "Concrete Island" (1974) or "High Rise" (1975), however it does explore much of the same interest in the collapse of western civilization. It's engagingly written, grotesque, sometimes funny, but always thought provoking. Its hints of depression narrative and suggestion of PTSD following an encounter with violence, disfigurement and death point the way forward to the author's later hypothetical studies on the fallout from acts of irrational violence found in the books "Running Wild" (1988), "Super Cannes" (2000) and "Kingdom Come" (2006).