Ballard described Crash as a “pornographic novel based on technology”. It could also be called a pornographic novel based on math. But is there any other kind? All porn is mathematical, because sexual desire is mathematical. Follow the tidal pull of lust, passion, and desire back to its source, and you will find, not a mystery of the heart, but a number. A certain amount of visual stimulus. A certain excitatory threshold to neurons. A certain amount of blood flow to the genitals. Whatever mystic significance we attach to eroticism, we’re ultimately aroused by numbers. Math: the universal fetish.
On the internet, math-fetishism becomes incredibly literal. Porn sites dismember girls as if with a buzzsaw, reducing them to heaps of bloody numbers. What is the essence of Mia Malkova? According to Boobpedia, it’s 34″ (bust), 26″ (waist), 36″ (hips), 5’7″ (height), 123lb (weight), and so on. These sites barely have any pictures of girls, just numbers and numbers and more numbers, as though female flesh is just an tediously necessary scaffolding for hot hot hot math. It’s disturbing: men calculating themselves into an orgasm.
Crash is a postmodern effort at explicating this sex-math link—although not it’s not the Imperial math of a seamstress, but the metric math of a structural engineer. It eroticizes mechanical destruction, portraying a community of “symphorophiliacs” who are aroused by car accidents, and seek to exist forever inside the moment of impact—the shattered glass halo exploding out over the road, the steel momentarily flowing like liquid, assuming a new position around (and through) the occupant’s body like a twisted cocoon. But how can these people exist in a world that’s exactly one heartbeat long? And which so often kills the participant?
Because they don’t. Symphorophiliacs aren’t real. Or they’re real but very rare; a Google search returns only dictionary definitions and results relating to Crash. The internet is an agar plate exhibiting all manner of bizarre fetishes—girls with giraffe necks, girls sinking in quicksand, Christina Hendricks photoshopped to be blue—but car crash aficionados seem hard to find.
Maybe Ballard thought that basing a book on a nonexistent (or barely existent) fetish would lead to fewer outraged letters (“Mr Ballard, your book promotes offensive and harmful stereotypes about our lifestyle…”) But there’s also something intrinsically Ballardian about car accidents. Like sexual desire, they are complex but ephemeral: like smoke rising from an math-fire. If you die on the road tonight, it will be because a number was wrong. A break pad wore 1 mm too thin. The friction coefficient of a tire against wet asphalt fell beneath some threshold. A truck driver slept for six hours instead of seven. This is true for any car accident in history, whether it’s James Dean’s, Jayne Mansfield’s, or the one that crippled my father. Whatever elaborate flowers of pain and heartbreak crawl from this dark soil, they are fertilized by slightly wrong numbers. In a similar vein, Crash is a porn narrative that’s slightly off. An android would not find it repellant. It might be more disturbed by the descriptions of conventional sex. As with Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, it’s built on taking well-worn synaptic pathways—Cars! Fucking!—and twisting them until they appear monstrous and alien. Often, it doesn’t take much twisting at all.
Crash’s (tiny) story involves a man who shares the author’s name. Having survived a car accident, he falls in with a gang of car crash fanatics, led by one Robert Vaughan. These are an odd bunch. Their bodies are wracked and twisted by many accidents. Their minds are worse. They drool over scientific papers with names like “Mechanisms of Occupant Ejection” and “Tolerances of the Human Face in Crash Impacts”. They meet on moonlit roads to restage historic car accidents, acting out the roles of Camus and Kennedy and Mansfield and Dean. Sometimes method-acting, if you catch my drift.
Vaughan (“nightmare angel of the expressways”) is one of the bleaker and more ambiguous figures in literature. His name is faintly suggestive of a car brand (Vauxhall. Vespa. Volkswagen. Volvo), and his stated profession of “TV scientist” sounds like a fake job created by a fibbing child on the playground (“your dad works at Nintendo? Ha! Mine’s a TV scientist!”). There are a few textual clues that Vaughan may not even exist—that he could be a Tyler Durden sort of figure, created by the narrator to express ideas that he is too afraid to own.
I saw no more of Vaughan. Ten days later he died on the flyover as he tried to crash my car into the
limousine carrying the film actress whom he had pursued for so long. Trapped within the car after it jumped the rails of the flyover, his body was so disfigured by its impact with the airline coach below that the police first identified it as mine. They telephoned Catherine while I was driving home from the studios at Shepperton. When I turned into the forecourt of my apartment house I saw Catherine pacing in a
light-headed way around the rusting hulk of Vaughan’s Lincoln. As I took her arm she stared through my
face at the dark branches of the trees over my head. For a moment I was certain that she had expected me to be Vaughan, arriving after my death to console her.
We had heard nothing of Vaughan since he had taken my car from the garage. Increasingly I
was convinced that Vaughan was a projection of my own fantasies and obsessions, and that in some way I
had let him down.
Descriptions of Vaughan’s “death” bookend the novel at front and back. His dual-obliteration spent “drowning in his own blood under the police arc-lights” is the book’s framework, two steel pins holding together a shattered bone of manuscript. “James Ballard” has found his people. He might not be with them for long. Not long after Vaughan’s real or imagined demise, he starts planning his own car crash. Not a car crash, the car crash. The final one. For hundreds of pages in between Vaughan’s death, we are treated to many descriptions of smaller accidents, related in Ballard’s chrome-iridescent prose.
Vaughan propped the cine-camera against the rim of the steering wheel. He lounged back, legs apart, one hand adjusting his heavy groin. The whiteness of his arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking-light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire. The reflected light of Vaughan’s headlamps picked out a semi-circle of five scars that surrounded his right nipple, an outline prepared for a hand that would hold his breast.
The entire book is written like this. Long erotic paeans about the least erotic things imaginable. The plot is minimal, because it’s porn—how much backstory does the pizza delivery guy in a Skinemax flick really need?—and instead the interest is thrown toward’s Ballard’s creative juxtopositions. Shaft sticks compared to erections. Semen in dead testicles compared to cooling engine fluid. That sort of thing. The endless detail is sort of enervating, but also sort of inspiring.
Many horror writers describe their universe as little as possible—Lovercraft’s old line about “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”—but Ballard was a rare exception. He didn’t just try to describe the alien, he tried to capture it, like a bug in a glass jar, and he often succeeded in doing so. Crash does feel exquisitely foreign. But the question remains: do you want to read 300 pages of this?
I remember my first minor collision in a deserted hotel car-park. Disturbed by a police patrol, we had
forced ourselves through a hurried sex-act. Reversing out of the park, I struck an unmarked tree. Catherine vomited over my seat. This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the essence of the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the minuscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses. In this magic pool, lifting from her throat like a rare discharge of fluid from the mouth of a remote and mysterious shrine, I saw my own reflection, a mirror of blood, semen and vomit, distilled from a mouth whose contours only a few minutes before had drawn steadily against my penis.
Sexual kinks are fascinating when you have them, dull when you don’t. And this is a fetish nobody has. It’s porn that forces the reader into compulsory asexuality. So why has Crash become a classic? What emotions does it rouse?
Initially, disgust. But soon even this recedes behind a stronger (though less acute) kind of horror. The actions are fucked up; but so’s the fact that someone would spend so many pages describing them. We live in a strange world. All these people have a dark bruise punched into their brain, one so dark it’s like a black hole, consuming first their thoughts and then their existence. Of course they love accidents. That’s what they are.
But 224 pages is a long time to spend in this world, and with these people. There’s no real evolution or change to the fractured-metal narrative. Crash is aptly named: it has all the forward momentum of an Aston Martin wrapped around a tree. The book presents a single, unvarying scenario. At times, the pages and chapters seem like they could be jumbled around in any order.
Ballard clearly intended the book as social commentary about car-obsession (from the foreword: “Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions.”). But this doesn’t really land: the book’s so weird and out there that it never truly feels like it’s striking a nerve. Yes, cars kill hundreds of thousands of people. But this isn’t because of some timeless Freudian death drive, but because there are a lot of cars and a lot of people and a lot of carelessness. Because of math, in other words. And this is not some horrible technological fate accompli that’s an inevitable consequence of the world we live in. We could easily make cars safer and laws saner. Then fewer people would die.
Furthermore, twisting human sexuality around cars seems a bit interesting. Yes, there are similarities between lust and the emotions roused by cars. But are they really a match? Sexual desire is timeless and atavistic. Cars are a techno-toy that didn’t exist for most of human history. There’s no symmetry here. Why cars?
Probably because the story’s not really about cars. It’s about the things a car symbolizes. Freedom. Mobility. Power. These are timeless desires that we hug close, even when they’re stinging us to death. Cars are just boxes strapped to wheels. They attain something more by the parts of ourselves we invest into them. We are the cars.
All of the good things a car offers is matched by a correspondingly steep cost. They let you be free…but sometimes they make you unfree—they turn you into a prisoner, shackled to a hospital bed, a wheelchair, a coffin. The sex appeal of sports cars is matched by a complete loss of sex appeal—car crash survivors often have horrific scarring and mutilation. The open air blowing in through your convertible top is matched by the poison billowing out behind. So there’s a dichotomy to car ownership. “Fast cars and fast women” turns into “wrecked cars and dead women” as quickly as a Vauxhall crosses the median strip. The faster you go, the faster you stop when you hit a wall.
One thing stands out about Crash, and its endless autopsies of metal and flesh. Huge slabs of books are actually about celebrity worship instead. Vaughan’s sick flock continually re-enacts the last moments of celebrities—at first this feels like a distraction from the book’s “real” purpose, but then you wonder if it is the book’s true purpose. Nobody cares about cars, just about what they symbolize: if you own a luxury car, you are rich, have abundant leisure time, and high sexual market value. All of these people are living out a fantasy where they are someone famous, using the cars as a “hook to hang your hat on”. After all, not everyone has James Dean’s haunting parasocial affect or Jayne Mansfield’s cans, but a violent death splattered into a dashboard is a fate no man is too poor to buy. Vaughan’s followers are role-playing as celebrities through the only means available to them: car accidents.
So that’s Crash. Flawed, somewhat overlong and overrated, but definitely compelling. Ballard has other, better work, but this is him at his strangest, most fearless, least endurable, and most alien. Crash and burn after reading.
This novel’s sales pitch shines from it like a Vegas billboard: “a fairy tale…but dark and edgy. Bet you’ve never heard that idea!”
If your reaction is “I have heard that idea. Many times. Everyone has heard that idea” then shame on you. Stop being a dirty birdie.
King is far more influenced by fairytales than is the average author. He doesn’t borrow fairytale stories but he clearly uses their structuring and devices: much of his early work could be described as “morality-based supernatural revenge” (Carrie, Thinner), or “Faustian pact with the Other Side” (Pet Sematary, “Sometimes They Come Back”). In his nonfiction writing, King repeatedly deconstructs fairy tales as models of how to build gripping, effective stories. So maybe a straight fairytale will turn out to be one of the five or six things he does really well. Let’s see!
Fairy Tale opens strong. A young man named Charlie McGee Reade (who, in a bold stroke of avant-garde experimentalism from King, is not from Maine) rescues an old man, Howard Bowditch, who lives alone in a creepy house on a hill and has broken his leg. The two strike up a diffident friendship. The old man doesn’t reveal much of his past but seems to be very rich: he pays a large hospital bill with literal nuggets of gold. Soon, the boy suspects that Howard has a passageway to a magical fairytale realm hidden inside his shed (don’t we all?)
This old-man-young-man relationship is masterfully drawn. Howard comes alive as a cantankerous grump, as does Charlie as a reformed bully (and borderline juvenile delinquent) with anger management issues. How did he become “reformed”? Because one day, he had a realization. Why am doing this? This is not who I am. This tiny moment, barely a sentence on the page, froze me in place. I once had a similar moment in my own life. This is not me. I’d never seen it depicted in a book before.
Other scenes, like Charlie’s alcoholic dad, and Mr Bowditch in the hospital, are raw and powerful. Every detail is well-chosen, and feels true to life. King writes excellently when he writes what he knows.
But then Charlie leaves the real world and enters the fairy realm through the tunnel in Mr Bowditch’s shed. The book becomes a chore. The pace, already slow, becomes torturous. A pattern asserts itself where Charlie meets some weird person, has some weird interactions, receives some exposition so the plot can creak forward a little, and so on. This goes on for an incredibly long time. Fairy tales are brief and light for a reason: it’s difficult to spend a long period of time in a fantasy world without subjecting it to logical scrutiny. I started to look at the gigantic sheaf of pages remaining in the book with mounting concern.
King’s mythical faux-Scandinavian setting is largely cribbed from movies—The Wizard of Oz is a far more palpable influence than the Brothers Grimm—and isn’t that interesting. The fantasy land of Empis never seems real. “Of course it can’t, it’s a fantasy world.” No. Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems real. So does CS Lewis’s Narnia (more so in the later books than in the first). So what’s different here? Well, Empis feels small. Nearly everyone Charlie meets in his quest is someone important: they’re either an exiled prince or princess, an agent of the enemy, or a person of clear signifance to the story. Imagine walking down a street in America, and the first people you see are Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King Jr. You wouldn’t feel like you’re in America, but in a theme park version of America. Fairy Tale has the same quality.
Yes, the first Narnia book also has the “hero randomly meets the most important person in the land” trope. But later books stretch out Narnia’s horizons and add more detail. We soon get the sense that it’s a real place with a thousand years of history bubbling beneath its skin: wars, politics, alliances. And Middle Earth is fully-formed and believable from the first page of The Hobbit. By contrast, Empis never shakes the feel that it’s an incestuous little toyland with a couple dozen people in it. It’s transparently fake. We do not care much about what happens to it.
The haunted, mythic city of Lilimar initially proves an effective setting change. But the endless scenes in the dungeon take on a tedium of a D&D campaign where nobody will jog the damn story along. The villains and monsters are more idiotic than scary. Every challenge gets literalized in a really annoying way, with Charlie figuring out his enemy’s “weakness”, like they’re bosses in a videogame.
Charlie’s hair starts to change. Once brown, it becomes blond. His eyes turn blue. He’s now a Disney Prince, a dashing Aryan ubermensch. This breaks the first rule of fairytales: they must never be aware that they are fairytales. King’s frequent references to Rumpelstiltskin (as well as his own work—I noticed Cujo and The Dark Tower) make things seem even more fake. Charlie is obviously being selected by this land (through some obscure logic that starts with “writer’s” and ends in “convenience”) as its hero and champion. Yet Charlie doesn’t have much of a personal stake in this fake world, or the Gallien dynasty. His one motive is to find some artifact of eternal youth to save his dog. He is forever an outsider, and his outsiderness locks us out of the story, in turn.
But there’s a lot of stuff I like. The characters are well done and believable. All of the stuff set in the real world is fascinating. There’s a subtle twist at the end that (despite being arbitrary) causes you to rethink many things that happened earlier. But whenever magic enters the story, it ruins it, making it perversely unmagical. Can King write this kind of story? No, he cannot. May he not write another.
* Want an example? Here’s the foreword of the expanded version of The Stand, with emphasis (and edits for length) by me.
If all of the story is there, one might ask, then why bother? Isn’t it indulgence after all? It better not be; if it is, then I have spent a large portion of my life wasting my time. As it happens, I think that in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. If that were not so, the following would be a perfectly acceptable version of “Hansel and Gretel”:
Hansel and Gretel were two children with a nice father and a nice mother. The nice mother died, and the father married a bitch. The bitch wanted the kids out of the way so she’d have more money to spend on herself. She bullied her spineless, soft-headed hubby into taking Hansel and Gretel into the woods and killing them. The kids’ father relented at the last moment, allowing them to live so they could starve to death in the woods instead of dying quickly and mercifully at the blade of his knife. While they were wandering around, they found a house made out of candy. It was owned by a witch who was into cannibalism. She locked them up and told them that when they were good and fat, she was going to eat them. But the kids got the best of her. Hansel shoved her into her own oven. They found the witch’s treasure, and they must have found a map, too, because they eventually arrived home again. When they got there, Dad gave the bitch the boot and they lived happily ever after. The End.
I don’t know what you think, but for me, that version’s a loser. The story is there, but it’s not elegant. It’s like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain’t, you know, boss.
[..] Returning to “Hansel and Gretel” for just a moment, you may remember that the wicked stepmother demands that her husband bring her the hearts of the children as proof that the hapless woodcutter has done as she has ordered.
The woodcutter demonstrates one dim vestige of intelligence by bringing her the hearts of two rabbits. Or take the famous trail of breadcrumbs Hansel leaves behind, so he and his sister can find their way back. Thinking dude! But when he attempts to follow the backtrail, he finds that the birds have eaten it. Neither of these bits are strictly essential to the plot, but in another way they make the plot they are great and magical bits of storytelling. They change what could have been a dull piece of work into a tale which has charmed and terrified readers for over a hundred years.
That’s well put. It reminds me of something Barthes calls “L’effet de réel“: the inclusion of a small, seemingly irrelevant detail that is merely there “because that’s the way it really happened and so it has to be noted as such”. Stories will never be reality, but the Effect of the Real explains how they seem to be reality.
One of Calvino’s later works, Under the Jaguar Sun aims to do the thing that’s hardest for the writer: touch the reader’s senses.
Books have a distancing effect: to read one, we imagine ourselves out of our bodies, and into the scene depicted on the page. Under the Jaguar Sun wants to short-circuit us back into our meatsacks using specifically-written stories about taste, smell, and sound. Not sight and touch, notably. Calvino never completed those. In an afterword, his wife urges us to think of the three written stories, and forget the two unwritten ones. (In any case, there are more than five senses).
The first story in the cycle is “taste”, or Sotto il sole giaguaro. A pair of tourists explore Mexican locales such as Tepoztlán and Monte Alban, eating local cuisine such as chiles en nogada and guajolote con mole poblano while reflecting on the history of the region. Conflicting flavors are used to symbolize religious and political strife, as well as possibly their own sexual tension. Calvino focuses on the exterior state of the characters: we’re meant to infer things from Olivia’s flaring nostrils, or the pause of her lips. Soon the narrator isn’t staring at his partner’s eyes, but at her teeth.
He suspects that she may want to eat him, driving fangs through the softness of his skin, as a jaguar might. His mind fills with bloody images: cut-out hearts, and blood steaming upon temple altars. I wonder if there are things not said: and that food is a distraction for something unspeakable about their relationship.
The prose of William Weaver’s translation is itself a bit too rich at times, evoking those terrible cooking blogs (“…somewhat wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender”). I could have done with less of that, but I was relieved that the characters can’t remember if cilantro is the same thing as coriander.
Eating is described as an act of travel. You are digesting a country and its history—and if that history is a bloody one, what effect will eating have on you? Calvino (through his narrator) scorns the poor imitations of “regional” food found in big restaurants, which he considers as fake as stage dressing on a movie set. But Mexico isn’t what it once was. The narrator imagines the hot, ancient land that Cortez once walked through…but that place doesn’t doesn’t exist anymore. He’s just summarizing ruins, inventorying echoes of echoes. He prizes “real” food because that’s the only form of reality available to him.
Un re in ascolto is the next story, themed upon “hearing”. It’s a lot of fun, much better than the first, with some great writing and the same twisted fairytale quality of Marcel Schwob. It also reminded me of the Truman Show.
A king sits upon a throne, a virtual prisoner. His crown is uncomfortable but he cannot move his head to adjust it. His scepter is heavy but it must never leave his hand. His throne doubles as a bedpan so he can relieve himself without ever being out of sight of his adoring subjects. In short, he might as well be made of glass. He’s inactive, defunct, just a monarch-object who exists to sit and be admired by the court until his death.
Which might come sooner rather than later. Despite existing under such pitiless, endless love, the king knows he is surrounded by enemies. Whether he’s right or merely paranoid doesn’t matter to us. He’s convinced that men are plotting and scheming in court: the palace is full of his spies, but they cannot catch everyone, and although reams of surveillance and interrogation are piled at his feet, there is too much of it to read.
With his eyes useless, he relies on hearing. The king learns to enjoy the sound of the wind blowing along the corridors; the sound of the guards slamming rifle butts in salute on the battlements. And soon, beyond the baldaquin of his hollow coffin-throne, the king hears a woman singing a love song…
It’s a good one—maybe a great one—about paranoia and suspicion and obsession. It made me feel closed-in and itchy. Uneasy hangs the head that wears the crown? No, it’s the ears beneath the crown that are the trouble. They keep complicating things.
Lastly comes Il nome, il naso, or “smell”. It’s a wild, decadent romp, braiding together three separate stories and letting strange things happen from their union. We get the perspectives of a wild beast, a French decadent rather like Huysmans’ Jean des Esseintes, and a drug-addicted musician. They are united by search for sensation, which is most potent in the form of olfaction.
It’s the shortest but also the messiest of the stories, and I can’t say I understood much of it. But that might be entirely appropriate: smell is the most fragile and easily overwhelmed of the senses, for me. The eyes see endlessly, the ears hear endlessly, and both touch and taste . But scents, however, quickly go dead. I’m not sure that I’d want to live in a world where the nose is king, but that’s the point of the story, we once did. And maybe there’s something latent there, hidden in our DNA and ready to become manifest.
This is an intimate and voluptous volume, and the fact that it’s incomplete reveals something important about senses: they often go away. A single lesion in the brain might take one (or more) of them away, silencing a world of meaning. In this book, we are blind and anaphiac. Sometimes we understand. Sometimes we grope in confusion.
It’s worth reading if you can find it cheap, and it encapsules much of what made Calvino great as a writer. It sets fires in the mind, and opens the imagination to worlds and words beyond, barely glimpsed off the margins of the page.