J. G. Ballard's novel resists attempts to summarise it with a single image
J. G. Ballard’s Crash is one of the most original and disturbing British novels of the last few decades and for many of his admirers it is his most extraordinary book. When it was published In 1973, Ballard was already recognised as a writer of great visionary power and today he is viewed by many as one of Britain's finest creators of fiction. Crash went even further than his earlier book, The Atrocity Exhibition, in which some of its sexual and technological themes first emerged. It's a novel that tests the limits of the reader's taste and sympathies in the most profound ways and it has always provoked strong reactions - positive and negative.
The publisher’s reader, wife of a psychiatrist, who was given the task of assessing Ballard’s manuscript, famously declared: ‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Novelist Will Self has said: ‘I only have to look at a few paragraphs of Crash to feel I am in the presence of an extreme mind, a mind at the limits of dark imagination.’ This was a commendation. ‘How many people are there who’d want to read a book like Crash?’ Ballard once asked. ‘Not many.’
Yet Crash, described by Ballard himself as a ‘psychopathic hymn’, did find a following. It became a cult book, appealing to the same kind of reader as William Burroughs, a writer Ballard constantly praised. It was the type of novel a post-punk rock band might enthuse about. Over the years it has appeared in French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Finnish, and Japanese translations. After several false starts Crash was filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996. In Britain, the film’s release prompted a moral panic. Set in the motorways, access roads, flyovers and multi-storey car parks around London Airport (now Heathrow), the book imagines a society in which the car crash has become the focus of a deviant new sexuality . . .
I read the hardback first edition of Crash as a teenager, soon after it came out. I was already a devotee of Ballard's other books, but I loved Crash's extremity, its sense of moral danger, its willingness to probe dark areas of the psyche, and the toxic beauty of its prose. When the paperback appeared in 1975, I read the book again. In 1980, on a trip to Paris, I saw the Livre de Poche translation and bought it – it contained an introduction by Ballard not then available in English. Over the years I collected editions of the book, partly to see whether any publisher would ever produce a visual interpretation that achieved the concentrated power of the quotation above. Ballard is an intensely visual writer. He has said that he felt more at home with artists such as his friend Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton than he did with other writers. He attended ‘This is Tomorrow’, organised in 1956 by Hamilton and others at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, made collages (see Eye no. 23 vol. 6), staged an exhibition of crashed cars in 1969 at the New Arts Labs in London, and often referred to Surrealist painters such as De Chirico, Ernst and Dali . . .
. . . On the whole, though, image-makers have been defeated by Crash. A book that ought to have inspired covers to match and reflect its status as an underground classic has often received visual treatments marked by incomprehension and evasion. I was curious to know how Ballard viewed this. He didn’t wish to be interviewed – reviewing the covers would, he suggested, be ‘rather too close to an autopsy on myself’ – but he was willing to make notes on some of them if I sent him photocopies
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