There are a lucky few books that make it to print, and fewer still that will outlive their authors as cultural milestones. Of this rare handful some will set out grand ideas, while others may one day come to be regarded as bold leaps in literature that expand the bounds of language and expression. There are probably no books other than J. G. Ballard’s Crash however that can claim to have inspired a new genre of music.
Ballard’s punk novel, despite this unique accolade, nearly didn’t clear that first hurdle of being selected for publication. A reader at his publication house sent to his superiors a note which read: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” This book’s entire currency is its shock value. You might expect that this currency, belonging to a book written in the 70s, might have depreciated in worth over the years. You could assume that with the decades-long shift to relaxed cultural attitudes (along with the rapid proliferation of dreadful snuff and porn content online) reading a book such as Crash would fail to rouse the same controversy. You would be wrong.
Crash is not only the most disgusting book I’ve ever read, it’s perhaps the most vile media I’ve ever consumed. At its heart, it’s a work of science fiction. Not of a far flung future or of a galaxy far, far away, but of the here and now – or at least, the here and now of 70s Britain at first publication. The challenge of this book is in how it alienates the reader to the present. A typical sci-fi story might spook its reader about the long-term effects of a current technology, or stoke anxieties about a dystopia that lies in waiting just around the corner. Ballard achieves in Crash a sense of unreality in that most mundane of 20th century technologies: the automobile.
The protagonist of the novel is also jarringly called Ballard. Given the perversion of the book’s contents and the distance you would assume any creator would’ve wanted to put between them and it, this makes for a provocative choice. The story begins with Ballard’s fictional self caught up in a fatal car crash below the entrance to the Western Avenue flyover. As his car slams into another in a forceful head-on collision, “his sense of sexual possibilities in the world around him becomes radicalised”. Crash concerns itself with the intersection of sex and the powerful violence of machines, the crossovers of people’s base desires and the tremendous capacity of technology to hurt people.
It’s a weird read, and I should disclaim it here as not for everyone (or even most people). I could spell out what happens, but couldn’t if I tried spoil the experience of reading its worst offending extracts as a first-time reader. Nothing can prepare you for Ballard’s revolting prose describing the many combinations of sex organs and car components, bodily fluids and engine liquids. Following his crash, Ballard’s character comes to associate with a ragtag network of car crash survivors, each of whom have also been sexually awakened by the terror of a high speed collision.
This group of miscreants is headed up by arch-pervert Robert Vaughan, whose obsession with extreme automobile accidents and savage intercourse is a total revelation to his disciples – including Ballard. As the story speeds towards its brutal conclusion, the depravity only accelerates. To get the same fix, Vaughan and his followers must pursue on the roadways of London higher velocities of sexual and metallic impacts.
The entire effect of the novel is to estrange you from the familiar security we associate with our cars; they are our capsules of movement in this Brave New World of anti-pedestrian flyovers, ring-roads and overpasses. So much gets made in dystopian fiction of bright lights, robotics and computers – brilliant advances that like a carrot on a stick remain just on the horizon. Ballard takes a different tack, and should surely be given credit for turning the gaze of techno-anxiety in on itself. Queasy as the book made me feel, and sickening as most of the scenes are that it contains, it succeeds in drawing your suspicion to the asphalt-carpeted world that already surrounds you. No imagination is necessary: the grim events of the book are written with such graphic intensity that Ballard does all the work on your behalf.
This alienation effect was likely never felt more considerably than when the book was first released. 70s Britain saw the slow death of industry, where only a decade previously towns and cities erected huge concrete tower blocks and spliced themselves with criss-crossing overpasses. Ballard’s ironic celebration of these ugly urban features in Crash put into words the detachment readers already felt. At the centre of all these developments is the motorcar, a symbol that was supposed to represent freedom but came to mean something else entirely. These empty environments, and the empty futures they conveyed, arguably make Crash more convincing than any dystopia that could be dreamt up by design.
The novel of course caused a splash of uproar when it was released – how could it not? But it did manage to achieve a dedicated cult following, especially among young science fiction fans in England at the time. Punk music was at the peak of its powers, but it had begun to feel stale and formulaic. As a new generation of synthesiser instruments became more affordable, Ballard’s Crash served as an aesthetic template for the synth-playing post-punk bands that began to emerge in the late 70s and early 80s. Acts from that time such as The Normal, The Human League, and Gary Numan have all come out as devotees of Ballard’s work; listening to Numan’s hit Cars takes on a new layer of meaning in the aftershock of my own exposure. The ground-breaking music of this era would go on to form the prototype for much of what we now know as pop and electronic music today. The documentary Synth Britannia charts this fascinating story, and you should definitely watch it if you get the chance.
At the heart of Crash was Ballard’s fanatical conviction in what he saw as the blatantly erotic relationship people have to their cars, and really to technology as a whole. Rather than try and convince you of this theory directly, he is just as persuasive by working with the clay of what’s familiar and contorting it into unseemly and dreadful shapes. Even once you close its pages and return to what you once knew as the world around you it remains difficult to fully trust it, knowing how he made it appear in this hideous book. This is a work of satire that still bites 50 years on, and though Ballard passed in 2009 he still manages to estrange you from your everyday surroundings from beyond the grave. It is surely the mark of any great writer who becomes a ghost in this way.
Words by Charlie Forbes
You can buy Crash by J. G. Ballard from an independent bookseller here (Paperback, £9.29).