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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Crash

by
J.G.Ballard


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Crash



Title: Crash
Author: J.G.Ballard
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973
Length: 224 pages
Availability: Crash - US
Crash - UK
Crash - Canada
Crash - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

C+ : a marvelous concept doesn't completely pan out on the page

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The premise, the whole idea behind Crash, is brilliant. Succinctly and elegantly explained in the introduction to the French edition (included in most of the English-language editions), Ballard's book sounds visionary. It is "an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation," he warns the reader, with the car "a total metaphor for man's life in today's society."
       Seductively he promises:

... the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.
       He babbles on about the book being "cataclysmic," and calls it both political and pornographic ("I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology"). Naturally, one gets curious about such a momentous and ambitious piece of writing, especially when practically all writing that falls into one's hands is so damn trite. This all sounds so promising .....
       Grandiose statements about metaphors are, of course, a dire warning. The wise reader will have applauded the introduction, said "My, how clever," and tossed the book far into the recesses of never-to-be-read piles of fiction of yore.
       Crash is, in fact, a bad book. Oh, it does some of what Ballard promised, and it remains an interesting idea, but the writing is not equal to the concept and lets the book (and the reader) down. Ballard's style may appeal to some; the style (or rather the consistent absence thereof) certainly did nothing for us. While recognizing the validity of Ballard's approach we note that just because it is valid does not make it readable.
       Ballard presents us with a book whose focus is on cars, motorways, and crashes -- real and staged. The story is by and large an interesting one, as the narrator's ("James Ballard"'s) life becomes entangled with that of Vaughan, who lives only for these crashes (and who, as we learn in the first line of the novel, died in one). A large element is also the sexual one, inextricably tied to the cars and the crashes, and there is an awful lot of sex going on in the back and front seats.
       What theoretically sounds like an immensely clever idea turns out to be less so in Ballard's fictional rendition. What he explains so well in his introduction he fails to ably put into practice. The biggest problem is not the story, but Ballard's writing. Crude we would not mind, but instead we get sledgehammer prose with no redeeming qualities. Even the sex (and, again, there is a lot of it) is written in the style of hack pornography -- the "sexual acts were exploratory ordeals", to quote the author.
       The cool, clinical, detached tone might be the proper one for this tale perhaps the only possible one. If so then this is a tale that remains, essentially, untellable. Ballard does have his moments -- but they are all conceptual and fail on the page. Vaughan's obsession with Elizabeth Taylor (into whose car he wants to crash, spectacularly) and the whole airport setting are fascinating. But slogging through these scenes on the page is frustrating more than anything else.
       Ballard says his book is "an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation". Unfortunately all this extremism works to the detriment of the novel. Ballard takes himself and his idea far too seriously, and given how the world has changed between 1973 and the present (and how it has not) his posture looks laughable. It would have been much more effective if he were not so moralistic and mock-sincere. We agree with the fundamental ideas behind the novel, but not with what he has done with them. It is not art, it is not literature, and -- most significantly and most disappointingly -- it is not very entertaining.
       The great impact the book had upon publication must be due to the novelty of the idea and the presentation. We agree that it is an important idea to present, and Ballard managed that in sensationalistic manner. However, the book also shows how quickly novelty can become dated. For all its cataclysmic aspirations, the book has made a resounding clunk rather than a brilliant Crash !, despite all the lavish praise and even the big-screen treatment.

       We did not mind the pornography (except for in its presentation) -- Ballard's intention here is emphatically pornographic, rather than erotic, which is fine by us since that is a large part of the "message" of the book. Note, however, that there is a lot of sex, and it is emphatically pornographic, so potential readers be warned. This is definitely not a book for the kids, and probably also not for impressionable adolescents getting their learner's permit. It is worth looking at for its ideas, but it is not a great read and we cannot, in good conscience, recommend it.

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Links:

Crash: Reviews: Crash - the film: J.G.Ballard: Other books of interest under review:
  • Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author J.G.Ballard was born in Shanghai (China) in 1930 and lived there until the end of the Second World War. He studied medicine before turning to writing, and has had great success as an exponent of British "new wave" (now "old hat" ?) science fiction. Among his books is also Empire of the Sun, which was made into a splashy Hollywood film by a big-name director, and Crash, which was made into a splashy Canadian film.

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