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J G Ballard: Crash

Forget David Cronenberg’s film, interesting though it was. However, it wasn’t the book. The book is, in my opinion, the best post-war English novel if not, indeed, the best English novel of the century. Cronenberg shows the relationship between sex and car crashes in his movie but what he does not show and what Ballard does show in his book is the relationship between sex, celebrity and car crashes. What Ballard does is show that the two obsessions of twentieth century man are cars and celebrities and the sexual link between the two. A more conventional author could have painted a fairly mundane picture of the use of sexy models or even a famous film star to sell cars but Ballard takes it further by showing the inherent eroticism not in cars but in car accidents. A conventional author could have shown his hero fantasizing over Elizabeth Taylor but Ballard has Vaughan fantasizing over Elizabeth Taylor in a car crash.

Reading it like that, anyone not familiar with the novel might think that finding car crashes erotic is perverse. Indeed it is. Ballard’s brilliance is to show that technology is changing not only our way of acting but our whole way of thinking. Cars are now ineluctably tied up with our sexuality and the failure of the cars – their crashes – even more so. The sex we see is not perverted or weird (as it seems to be in the film) but different, one step beyond where we think we are. The brilliance of this novel is the linkage with celebrity sex. Elizabeth Taylor is not sexy in a movie or in the nude. She is only sexy when smashed up in a car crash. It is no longer good looks or big muscles that makes a man sexy. It is how many scars from car crashes he has and that is what makes Vaughan sexy for Catherine. Many people hate this novel. No-one has read it and been unmoved.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Other links

The six-second version of Crash