Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Last week's news of the death of J.G. Ballard focused inevitably on his most famous work, "Empire of the Sun," made popular by the movie version directed by Steven Spielberg. That work dealt through fiction with Ballard's experience in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, a nightmare vision he carried with him into the rest of his works. But obituaries also dealt with easily his most infamous work, the 1973 novel "Crash," which was also made into a movie by David Cronenberg.

Putting it mildly, Ballard was pessimistic about the ability of technology to improve the human species, as well as any hopes he might have harbored about the moral improvement of man. This view becomes abundantly clear with "Crash," a book in which Ballard said he "wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." I'd say he accomplished that task. The anger of that statement shines through on every page. Ballard supposedly submitted a much longer manuscript which one publisher rejected, saying the author was beyond any psychological help.

It's easy to see why. "Crash" is a hard book to read, even now, more than 30 years after its publication. The story is told by a man in an open marriage who falls under the influence of a man sexually obsessed with car accidents. One may draw his own conclusions when one learns the narrator's name is James Ballard. The collision of cars serves as a metaphor for the unexpected consequences when individuals unite sexually. In its short 200 plus pages are crammed drug use, adultery, homosexuality, and a host of unhealthy fetishistic behaviors. A cast of numb characters rehearse a number of liasons in junked cars, with Ballard's prose flitting back and forth between their limbs and glands and the instrument panels of the automobiles they occupy, without any detectable difference between the living and the inanimate. Characters do not seem to be living and breathing as much as so many orifices and body parts to satisfy urges they cannot understand or articulate. They are objects, supposedly for satisfaction, though no one seems satisfied by anything.

Every accident is unique, with its own trajectories, vectors, circumstances, outcomes. The fictional Ballard's mentor Vaughn plans in intricate detail his hoped-for fatal crash - that of Elizabeth Taylor. He drives a Lincoln Continental, the same car President Kennedy rode in when he was assassinated. When Ballard is involved in a car accident, he is shaken to discover there is a victim, a man who dies sprawled on the hood of Ballard's car. Ballard then takes up with the dead man's wife. You get the picture. Ballard, the real one, may have wanted to make a statement about human depravity and how technology facilitates it, but he seems to be enjoying himself too much in the seemingly endless cataloguing of bodily secretions, wounds and deviancies, as when the fictional Ballard reveals, after his own crash, thinking of other disaster victims, "the injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia or accessible dreams."

What struck me the most about this book was its artificiality, which I suppose is the point. Ballard, Vaughn, and the other characters are survivors of car accidents, yet their lingering on the accident scene isn't so much a longing for the accident as the idea of it. Much like society's current obsession with the virtual world the information age may create, these characters live in a fantasy world divorced from the reality of what their obsessions really are or mean. We are a society that talks a great deal about love, but the love we seek is often not love at all but a biological urge that becomes warped by our own inarticulate, misunderstood urges. When our fantasies are placed side by side with reality, or perhaps compared with the ideal of what we seek, we quickly understand the great distances the human imagination can quickly travel and how inadquate its sense of direction is. This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I witnessed an actual car accident.

I was driving north on the Interstate when I noticed a dust cloud in the median. I looked in my rearview window and saw a rising cloud on the opposite shoulder of the southbound lane and dozens of cars slowing down. I got off at the next exit and quickly crossed over to the other lane to see if help was needed. At the foot of a steep hill, an SUV laid on its side, smashed and smoky after tumbling several times. Hand tools, CDs, clothes, and other articles lay strewn in the tall grass. Standing amidst onlookers was the driver, a thin trickle of blood coming from his forehead. He was shaken, but alive and intact. And grateful. When I asked him what had happened, he gave a vague explanation, what shock would allow of an instance that lasted perhaps 10 seconds at most.

Accidents remind us of the random nature of life, and the reality that technology can only do so much to save us from ourselves. A wrong turn at too great a speed can be deadly, or exhilirating if survived. As we've observed here before, it is the danger inherent in sin that makes it attractive, regardless of how vivid the consequences may be in our minds. Just as the characters of "Crash" know what the outcome of a car collision might be, we continue to take the curbs of our lives too fast, our foot a little too far from the brake, our eyes straying from the path ahead.

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