Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reading group: Crash by JG Ballard

This was a pretty heated meeting.

I had suggested this 1973 book since I had never read it, yet had always meant to, being fairly sure from what I knew of its subject matter that it was culturally significant and would be at the very least an interesting and probably an exciting read. It's the first-person narration of an advertising film executive, 'Ballard', who, after a car crash, becomes involved with a group of people all of whom are also crash victims and who are led by the sinister ex-scientist Vaughan into an obsession with car crashes and, more importantly, into a cult of the eroticization of violence and physical wounds. The story is told retrospectively after Vaughan's inevitable - and indeed more or less self-willed - death which opens the book.

Ballard's introduction to the French edition, published in my English edition - which I didn't read until afterwards - sets out his, to me, exciting and significant aims. The book, he says, is 'an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation'. He suggests that the car crash - 'a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions' - may be a 'sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology'. We live in an age of 'the concept of unlimited possibility' and in a world 'ruled by fictions of every kind', indeed 'inside an immense novel', and the consequent 'diseases of our psyche' - 'voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings' - 'have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect'.

He would like to think that the book is also 'the first pornographic novel based on technology', but it also has a political role, he says - and pornography is anyway 'in a sense the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way'. I'm not too sure about this definition of pornography - pornography might well reveal this about our behaviour but revealing it as a political act is not often I bet the motive of the pornographer. He states that as the author of the book he has no moral stance, since this can no longer be the role of the writer, who 'knows nothing any longer', yet Ballard's political aspirations for the book surely pull against this. Finally he states that the ultimate role of Crash is 'cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape' - and you can't get much more moral in intent than a cautionary tale.

Had I read first these apparent conflicts in authorial intention I might have guessed how disappointed I was going to be with the book, and introducing the book to the group I said so. There are brilliant descriptions of our traffic-choked world and our shifting significance within it, but they are repeated over and over in a way that becomes numbing. The increasing perversions of the characters are presented in the same numbing manner, wounds matched to car parts in a way that becomes nerdy and as infantile as the characters performing them, while the characters themselves are kept at a distance. All of this is clearly strategy to recreate their loss of affect - and Trevor jumped in here in defence of the book to point this out - but I'm afraid it simply didn't work for me: I just found the book dull and had to struggle to go on reading it. It said little more than the introduction and was as much of a thesis - indeed its thesis was repeated numbingly over and over : 'these unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed ... a new union of pain and desire' - since it gave me no real insight into the characters and their psychology. There was no real development to engage you, you knew exactly what was going to happen.

People were now bouncing in their seats to contradict me. Trevor said I couldn't complain about knowing what was going to happen because it tells you at the start: Vaughan gets killed in a car crash. I said I didn't mean plot, I meant emotional development: I wanted to know, to experience precisely how the characters moved into the psychological states which led them to their perversions and I didn't. I had really wanted to be excited or shocked by this book, but I wasn't. I was held at a distance. Trevor said that I couldn't complain about that because it was deliberate to keep the reader at a distance. I tried to say that because something is deliberate doesn't mean it works but now people were talking on all sides and I didn't get a chance. I did get to say that my biggest emotional involvement had been wondering how I would have written it: how I'd have retained a moral stance - I was going to say while allowing the reader to share the experiences of the characters, but Trevor cut me off, saying firmly that Ballard had no moral stance. I started to say, Yet he says he's telling a cautionary tale, but realized I had been deflected from my point, so stopped. Also I was afraid that people were thinking that I was being precious and pulling rank and showing off as a writer, especially as I had mentioned at the start that I had been published alongside Ballard a couple of times in mags and anthologies. Indeed Clare now asked me if I always read novels as an author and I said there was no way I couldn't, and Clare and Ann agreed (somewhat politely, I thought) that it was interesting to get an insider's viewpoint while Jenny stayed significantly silent, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had disqualified myself as a pure reader and invalidated entirely the point I was trying to make. Trying to get back to it, I did say that I hadn't been at all emotionally involved or found the book erotic apart from one or two moments, but Clare and Jenny said they definitely had.

People started talking about that but I said that I still had my most important thing to say about the book, and they subsided and let me. I said that I completely acknowledged that cars are sexualized in our culture, that when young lads drive cars fast it's a sexual thing and the car is an extension of their penis etc, but that commonplace fantasy precisely overlooks the matter of maiming or death: such young lads feel invulnerable. By contrast in this book pain and death become part of the erotic fantasy. (In fact, I've written a bit about this myself, in my novel Body Cuts, but I found Crash so emotionally unconvincing that I came away feeling that I didn't understand it at all.) I was about to say this, that the book didn't make it convincing, but people jumped in to explain the phenomenon to me, saying That's because it's a perversion! Jenny said, the difference is that all these characters have been involved in car crashes already, and Clare said, yes and then the pain and the wounds become eroticized.

People were now interrupting each other and complaining that they were not being allowed to speak. Eventually I asked them to let me speak again because I wanted to finish my point about psychological conviction in the narrative, which I felt I hadn't got over, but Jenny said, You've said it already and I felt told off and shut up altogether and ate some crisps instead while the discussion went on between Jenny, Clare and Trevor, the book's proponents. (Ann, who hadn't managed to get hold of a copy and so hadn't read it just listened too, as did John who had also found the book boring.) They relished the brilliance of the idea of the airport setting as a theatre for Vaughan's perversions, and the voyeurism yet exhibitionism of the narrator Ballard perched in his glassy flat overlooking the motorway flyover, at the clever paradox that the traffic was constantly static, stuck there in jams. There was a brief discussion about whether the book was erotic or pornographic. Clare did admit that she had also found the repetitious descriptions of car parts and wounds tedious, and had noticed that occasionally the prose descended into clunkiness, but she agreed when Jenny said with a grin that she had found some of the details really shocking, such as the growing semen stain around the flies of Vaughan's filthy trousers.

Because he had said nothing, Clare asked John what he thought of it. He said he had found it samey and boring but he had no real strong feelings about it either way. He did think though, that perversion is really a search for emotion, and that this is what the book was about. Then Jenny said but what's perversion? A perversion is only a perversion once you name it that, it's simply cultural, and there was some inconsequential discussion about this.

Trevor said, What about the bit when 'Ballard' and Vaughan have sex in the motorway underpass and then Vaughan tries to kill Ballard by running him down, that was dead good. I spoke up again and said that I could quite believe it can happen that men have sex and then want to kill each other afterwards, but I really didn't believe in this scene in this novel, it was narrated in too distant a manner. Trevor repeated that I couldn't complain about that because that had been intended. This time I said that I could complain about it, just because something is intended doesn't mean it works. In fact I thought this book was a brave experiment that hadn't worked.

Ann then said the discussion made her think of Hubert Selby Junior's Last Exit to Brooklyn which we discussed previously. Jenny and Clare groaned. Oh no, they had really hated that - that really had been distasteful! Jenny said that she had also liked Crash much better than Nabokov's Lolita which had so disgusted, shocked and upset her that she had been unable to finish it.

It struck me then that this was a clue to what seemed a paradoxical response in the group to Crash, for how could you find a book shocking, as they were gleefully claiming to do, while acknowledging and approving its detachment? Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lolita are books which, unlike Crash, take you right into the minds of the transgressive characters and allow you to see their humanity: what is shocking in them is that they implicate you, the reader, wholly and in my opinion are the greater novels for it. Crash, on the other hand, allows the reader a voyeuristic position, and as such is as pornographic as Ballard clearly intends: any shock is safe, second-hand and as relishable (or tedious) as a ride in a ghost train. Thus the book and the reader collude with the lack of affect it is intended as a warning against.

Not that I got to say any of this. I just drank too much wine instead.

Finally, people asked if it could have been written today. Ballard's premise, stated in the introduction, that we are characterized by optimism and a sense of limitless possibilities, no longer holds in face of the uncertainties of terrorism and global warming. Certainly Ballard could not write that introduction now, nor use this observation as a premise. Yet the book itself is a pessimistic vision, and we operate enough on doublethink to make its message still relevant today.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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