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.

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