Friday, 18 December 2009

Crash - J G Ballard

It is difficult to know what to say about a book that has had so much said about it in the decades since it was written. It is certainly not a book one reads for a bit of fun. Ballard wanted it to be uncompromising and uncomfortable and he achieved that. But he achieved so much more. Because in Crash he was the first to articulate in literature what has become evident the world over. We are obsessed the motor car and the landscape we have built for it. We are so obsessed; it is in the nature of a sexual fetish.

Ballard was never quite sure whether he had written the book as a warning or not. I think it transcends that, because as well as an articulation of a very specific and dangerous obsession, it also explores humanity in a world that it had not, until that time, been able to live in. The world of the book is the world that many inhabit. A world designed for machines. The car, the plane, the city, the road. We are told they are there for our benefit, but as recent events have clearly shown us, they tolerate us, but there is no emotional attachment to us. We are crushed on a daily basis by the machine. Mutilated, poisoned, and killed by cars; our spirits tortured and destroyed by our service to the machine.

The book is also a warning that that the machine is crumbling. Crash contains only one image from nature, that of leaves falling from trees. The rest is concrete and steel, roads, cars, aircraft, and the all night service stations and shops that litter our cities. Yet even that is decaying. The landscape is littered with scrap heaps, with dunes composed of shattered windscreen glass, flaking paint and all the detritus of the car crash. Interiors, where one might expect to find shelter are full of items that break and penetrate flesh.

And in this world you must switch off your sensibilities if you are to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom of obsession. Yet switching off makes us willing advocates and slaves of the machine. The world we have created is one that has no place for us; it is one in which we must scurry and scuttle through the pipe work and hidden spaces, staying out of the bright lights where we become easy targets. We are rats in a maze of our own making. Rats in a maze that grows out of control.

Ballard dropped his experimental approach to narrative to write this book. It doesn’t need it (although it would have been interesting to see how far he could have taken that). Instead, he uses straightforward narrative techniques to carry us into the bad acid trip and the finale in which man and machine make their first clumsy attempts at mating.

I loved this book when I first read it and still think it is a work of genius. It still shocks. It still screams its message of brutal head-on crash. The stench of burning rubber rises from locked wheels; the odour of exhaust permeates the air, fills our lungs and taints our clothing; the victims, mangled in the machine, bleed and die. The whole ungainly juggernaut is dissected with clinical efficiency and set before us. What we do with it, the author says, is our affair, but be warned: this is no sick fantasy; it is a very real world. It was real in 1973 when the book was first published. It is much more so in this new and crumbling millennium.