CRASH by J. G. Ballard / An Analysis of CRASH by J. G. Ballard


An Analysis of Crash (J. G. Ballard) by Joseph Suglia

“How does it feel / to be driven away from your own steering wheel?”
–Captain Beefheart

“If I can count six steeds,
Is their power not also my own?
I run forward and am a genuine man,
As if I had twenty-four legs.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I

An obsession, unless derailed, might be infinitely protracted.  J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) is the record of an endlessly self-perpetuating obsession.  Its sole, intense preoccupation is with the point at which orgasm and automobile wreck merge: a new form of eroticism that would not be based upon, or governed by love, jealousy, passion, or the causality of reproduction.  In a consumerist society in which every form of sexual gymnastic has seemingly been exhausted, the automobile disaster is the one orgasmic event that could rupture the everyday and multiply sexual possibilities; it opens up the possibility of a stylized and formalized, violent sexuality, “divorced from any possible physical expression” (35); it gives birth to new conceptualized sex-acts “abstracted from all feeling,” from “carrying any ideas or emotions with which we cared to freight them” (129).  But this is not to say that the book’s focus is exclusively or primarily sexual.  Automobile-disaster eroticism in Crash serves as a metaphor that exceeds the dimensions of sex: It stands for the amorality of the experiences of the body mediated by technology.

Crash envisions the amorality of the becoming-body of technology and the becoming-technological of the body.  As the obsessive martyr of automotive sexuality (a sexuality that is inseparable from photography and cinematography–in other words, cinematic scopophilia), Dr. Robert Vaughan, former computer scientist and minor television celebrity, charts out the manner in which the automobile reshapes and instrumentalizes the human body.  Listening to police broadcasts on the radio to disclose the locations of accident sites, Vaughan moves breathlessly from one scene of metallic destruction to the next, witnessing the aftermath of careening vehicles that have coupled with one another, hoping to unveil the amorality of the body in an age of all-embracing technologization.  Vaughan sexually experiments with and within automobiles, both “whole” and “distorted,” visualizing and staging infinite permutations of the car-collisions that he witnesses.  He compiles an almanac of wounds inflicted by automobile accidents, “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology” (13).  Vaughan, a scientist of automotive eroticism, is attracted to the scars, deformities, and disfigurements of car-crash victims.  Vaughan maniacally follows every car-crash victim in the novel–particularly the narrator and his wife, Catherine–with camera equipment, photographing them.  What interests Vaughan, however, is not the historical existences of these characters, but the amoral relationship between anonymous individuals and automobiles.  A visionary prophet and pioneer, he heralds an “autogeddon” in which humanity would be simultaneously destroyed in a global car wreck.

Vaughan’s project is not merely to reach the ultimate pinnacle of erotic excitation, but to envisage the “experience” of his own mortality–an event that would presage the destruction of Western civilization–in a spectacular automobile accident.  His single-minded fanaticism impels him to rehearse his own death in collisional union with a limousine transporting Elizabeth Taylor, a death that would jaunt him into a spectacular space in which his body would become pure image.  Through his death, Vaughan dreams of derealizing and reincarnating himself by merging with the time and space of the image: the counter-world to all lived engagements which the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord described as “the society of the spectacle.”  All lived experience in contemporary society, Debord argues, exists only to be transformed into an image.  A homogeneous stream of images constitutes a world correlative to our own, an autonomous sphere of “objectivity.”  Vaughan projects himself into the counter-world of the spectacle in order to remerge in it, mediating his dreams of a violent new sexuality.

Vaughan’s gospeller is the narrator, James Ballard, whose car collides with that of a woman, Dr. Helen Remington, with whom he later has a sexual liaison.  The car-crash jolts the narrator out of his everyday world and transformatively resexualizes his experience of the world: “This obsession with the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash” (29).  Certainly, the crash has released the possibility of new pleasures through its projection of a futural technologized sexuality (boredom weighs heavily on the existences of the characters).  But more to the point, the crash frees the narrator up for a vigorous engagement with his own body as an automobile (he effectively “dates” his car experienced as his body).  When Ballard claims, unforgettably, that the “crash was the only real experience” that he “had been through for years” (39), he intends an experience of auto-affection that transcends sexuality in the restricted sense of the word.  A “new junction” between his “own body and the automobile” [55] is formed.

By presenting this junction, Crash invites the reader to think of technology not as an instrument exterior to the body, but as a supplementary extension of human flesh: the super-sexuality of the automobile disaster expands the dimensions of the human body and widens the self’s spheres of activity.  The metaphor of extension, however, is ultimately not adequate to describe this expansion.  The human body melds with the vehicle that would carry it along and is reconstituted in the process: The vehicle supersedes the authority of the driver.

Beyond its science-fictional dimensions, Crash is a Nietzschean novel that projects a culture which would be beyond Good and Evil.

The world of Crash is one in which human beings are not the most important landmarks or points of orientation: “I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity” (48).  Technology reforms the human body, opening up new chains of erotic signification and new avenues of pleasure; technology reappears as the core of human nature, not as “something” divorced from, and appended to nature.  New apertures are formed.  New flows and fluids spurt.  Now the body is reconceptualized in terms of somatic possibilities, a pathology of never-before-imagined sensations and experiences.  One may no longer conceive of the wounds that sprout on the car-crash victim as forms of deformation.  After Ballard’s car collides with and kills the husband of Dr. Helen Remington, the impact of the collision is defined in Ballard’s “wounds, like the contours of a woman’s body remembered in the responding pressure of one’s own skin for a few hours after a sexual act” (28).  The instrument panel impresses itself upon his torso; his body is stamped by the car’s metallic sheath.  We see that the car-crash marks the human body in an essential way, allowing it to expand in all directions.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the description of Gabrielle, a character Ballard never clearly delineates in the novel.  A shadowy figure born from the conjunction of sex and technology, Gabrielle blooms new sex-organs that afford her new pleasures.  The narrator unshackles her leg and spinal braces, the physical marks of her initiation into technologized sexuality.  He runs his fingers along the “deep buckle groove” and the “depression on her thigh, the groove worn below her breast under her right armpit by the spinal brace.”  (In David Cronenberg’s film version (1996), Gabrielle (played by Roseanne Arquette) has a gaping orifice on her thigh.)  These wounds are for Ballard “the templates for new genital organs, the moulds of sexual possibilities yet to be created in a hundred experimental car-crashes” (177).  The narrator visualizes accidents that would multiply the lamellae of the human body, wounds that would be born from future technologies.  The ordinary coordinates of heterosexuality are displaced (“[T]he nominal junction points of the sexual act… failed to provide any excitement for us” (178)) and replaced with new zones of pleasure.

At the end of the novel, Ballard’s own vital fluid baptizes Vaughan’s crushed automobile in the name of “auto-eroticism,” heralding a new age in which the soul would be substituted for undreamed-of forms of technicity, an epoch in which technology would install its machinery into the human body in order to reconceive it entirely: “With the semen in my hands I marked the crushed controls and instrument dials, defining for the last time the contours of Vaughan’s presence on the seats…  Catherine and I stood back, watching these faint points of liquid glisten in the darkness, the first constellation in the new zodiac of our minds” (224).  When Ballard smears his own fluid, which emanated from his wife Catherine, onto Vaughan’s demolished vehicle, it is clear that the transmission of his messiah’s gospel is represented by this christening.

This is the gospel that is everywhere implicitly articulated in the novel: Technology opens a neutral realm, an affectless, guiltless, non-moral arena.  The decision to move a steering wheel to the left or to the right is not a moral decision.  Indeed, all technological decisions are amoral decisions, and the total englobement of human life by technology opens the terrifying possibility of a technologically mediated psychopathology.  The logical consequence of inhabiting a culture dominated by technology is the eroticization of this same technology.  As the fruit of this culture, the traditional morality that serves it can only represent this eroticism under the rubric of perversion.

To write it once more, as directly as possible: J. G. Ballard is a satirist, and in this novel, he is satirizing the envelopments of technology and the psychosocial consequences of these envelopments.  All-englobing technologization leads to what I call “the technological hypothesis”: Whatever is technologically possible will eventually become technologically actual.  Unhappily, this forgoes ethics, which is what Ballard’s Crash is about.

Joseph Suglia

P. S. Crash is not Ballard’s greatest literary work–that distinction goes to his short stories (including those collected within The Atrocity Exhibition) and Kingdom Come, his great final novel.  The vocabulary of Crash (“geometry,” “stylised,” etc.) and its metaphors are repetitious.


Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk


RANT (“Chuck” Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Even “Chuck” Palahniuk’s most devoted followers will have a hard time getting through Rant (2007), a book about thrill-seeking that is devoid of a single thrill.  As insipid as they are, at least Palahniuk’s other books are EZ-2-Read.  Rant, however, is not merely stupid–it is also deadeningly, mind-numbingly tedious.  While trudging through its pages, the essence of boredom was revealed to me.

Rant is compact of endlessly babbling voices.  Each voice narrates a piece of Buster Casey’s life, a Typhoid Mary who has caused rabies to percolate throughout the United States.  But there is nothing to be learned about Casey after the sixth page (Pages One through Six are titled, imaginatively, “An Introduction”), and what we have already learned is never vividly or convincingly described.  To be absolutely explicit: The plot doesn’t move.  It stagnates.  There is no progression.  No motor drives the narrative.  Nothing is narrated between Pages Seven through 319 that hasn’t been narrated in the first six pages.

Anything that seems to be remotely original comes from somewhere else.  The book’s epigraph was pilfered from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), the oral-biographical structure was pillaged from Stephen King (Carrie), the “Party Crashers” narrative was filched wholesale from J. G. Ballard’s Crash, a narrative that dominates the book to such an extent that it would have been better titled Ballard for Kindergarteners or Ballard Made EZ.  (Casey is Vaughan from Crash.  Yes, there is repetition in Crash, but it is repetition with purpose, repetition with nuance, repetition with difference.  Here, there is only the infinite repetition of the Same.)  The Tarzanesque pseudo-sentence “How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday” (Pages Four and 253) was pocketed from French poet and thinker Paul Valéry (“The problem with the present is that the future is no longer what it used to be”).  The illiterately worded statement “History is, it’s just a nightmare” (p. 60) was lifted directly from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  (Not that Palahniuk has read Valéry or Marx, mind you. He has admitted that his information largely comes from talking to those he meets at parties and from his followers.)  Even the rabies motif was thieved.  David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), anyone?

Rant is littered with pop-nihilistic syllogisms, statements of the obvious that are presented as “deep truths”: “Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere” (p. 12).  Who doesn’t know that car-salesmen mimic the body-language of potential clients?

The subhuman prose is even more galling than the book’s content.  Nearly every other sentence contains a double subject.  For instance: “The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink” (p. 2).  A slightly less awkward, slightly less annoying, grammatical way of writing the “sentence” would be: “The flight attendant asks a hillbilly what he would like to drink.”  Palahniuk, however, insists on multiplying the subjects in his sentences ad nauseam, with unbearably irritating results.  Palahniuk’s defendants claim that he isn’t really as dimwitted as he seems to be, that his narrators are merely functionally illiterate.  If that is the case, they must explain why Palahniuk interviews in a functionally illiterate manner, why he writes “essays” in a functionally illiterate manner, and why every character in his universe is functionally illiterate, including those who hold doctorates.  If Palahniuk is merely impersonating a lobotomized orangutan on heroin, why would he write essays and speak in exactly the same simian language?

And so we have the grating misusage of the word “liminal”–over and over and over and over again…  We have Phoebe Truffeau, Ph.D., who uses phrases such as “prohibitions to [sic] bestiality” (p. 82).  We have teachers who say things such as “That Elliot girl, she told me the Tooth Fairy left [the coin] in exchange for a tooth she’d lost” (p. 52) and “Money you don’t work to earn, you spend very quickly” (p. 54).  We have Lowell Richards, teacher, who uses the phrase “indirectly and obliquely” (p. 99).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to write as “the smart people” do, he reveals himself as a half-wit.

And we have unspeakably hideous sentence fragments such as: “The ice melt and disappear” (p. 2).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to revise a cliche, such as Andy Warhol’s overly cited declaration “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” he comes up with a monstrosity: “In the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes” (p. 5).  Palahniuk’s revision makes no sense: I’m assuming that “everyone” includes “the famous,” which implies, of course, that in the future, the famous will also sit next to the famous.

Perhaps most offensively, Rant croaks out, in a particularly infantile passage, that AIDS is a “disease” that has been “spread” by a single carrier–that it is a “disease” like any other disease–when, in fact, AIDS is a syndrome of diseases, a pandemic, for which no single individual is accountable.

Allegedly, “Rant” refers to the sound that babies make when they vomit.  Now, I’ve never actually heard a baby make such a noise, but perhaps one should take the “author” at his word.  The title seems perfectly appropriate.  Simplistic, stupid, superficial, tedious, and derivative, Rant is the verbal equivalent to chunks of infantile regurgitate.

The same could be said of all of Palahniuk’s “works,” which are not based on the imagination (the “author” seemingly has no imagination whatsoever), but rather on whatever he is leafing through at the present moment.  As I stated above: Palahniuk has admitted that his books are collages of interviews he has had with random people in bars and at parties, as well as the four or five non-fiction books he leases from his local public library every time he sits down to write a “novel.”  The rest of the information is “Googled.”

Regrettably, Palahniuk is an incompetent “borrower.”  There is often the question, in his books, of relevancy. In Survivor, there is a longish passage on lobster-eating that was apparently lifted word for word from a book on dining etiquette.  What, precisely, does this passage have to do with Survivor‘s narrative?  Answer: Absolutely nothing.

Palahniuk wrote Lullaby in three weeks.  I’m not entirely certain how much time it took him to disgorge Rant.  My guess would be two weekends.  I don’t say this to praise Palahniuk, as if he were capable of fashioning a well-crafted novel in two weekends with the dexterity of a Picasso, who could toss off a painting in an afternoon.  Rant is writing-workshop trash.  It reads as if it were a live-journal or Web log written by a subnormal high-school stoner, retched out and fraught with galling errors.

Palahniuk’s followers worship their leader as if he were a god.  But God is not an artist.

Neither is Chuck Palahniuk.

Dr. Joseph Suglia