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Sex and Smashed Steel

A look back at J.G. Ballard's ‘Crash’—one of the the 20th century’s greatest and most disturbingly prophetic novels.

· 25 min read
James Spader as James Ballard in Crash
James Spader as James Ballard in Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) Alamy.

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
~Albert Camus


Today’s social-media landscape—a phantasmagoric combination of cruel panopticon and giant video game replete with pornographic sex and livestreamed atrocity—would not have surprised British novelist James Graham Ballard, whose books prophesied our obsessions with voyeurism and violence a half-century ago. Occasionally referred to as the “seer of Shepperton” (after the London suburb in which he lived), Ballard was the late 20th century’s preeminent chronicler of what he called “psychotic hymns.”

Ballard began his career as a science-fiction writer but never abandoned that genre’s central preoccupation with mankind’s technological creations. Over time, he followed this theme into the darkest recesses of human experience. Not only would technology help us meet our needs and take us to other planets, but Ballard noticed before almost anyone else that it would also be used to enhance our pursuit of pleasure. It would cater to an inner life that would release the most ferocious urges of the Id, shattering centuries of moral repression.

J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930 and spent his early life among the upper-class British expatriate community there. When the Japanese conquered the city, he was imprisoned in an internment camp where, he later recalled, he “ran wild” more or less free of his parents’ authority—an experience he would eventually chronicle in his bestseller Empire of the Sun. The extent to which internment influenced Ballard’s work can be overstated (he disliked the importance critics and interviewers routinely placed on his unusual childhood), but there can be no doubt that his experience of war and suffering gave him an understanding of the world unavailable to most of Britain’s rarified literary scene.

Ballard was liberated at the end of World War II—the atomic bomb, he said, had saved his life—and moved to a drab and depressed Britain where people “won the war but acted like they lost it.” He studied medicine with the intention of becoming a psychoanalyst, found dissecting cadavers therapeutic, and began writing short stories after he discovered pulp science-fiction magazines. He never attempted to distance himself from his early years as a science-fiction writer—to the contrary, he believed it to be the 20th century’s supreme genre because it was about the future rather than the past or present. But from the beginning, Ballard’s stories were different, more concerned with what he called “inner space” than outer space. Instead of interstellar travel and star wars, Ballard explored the psychological effects of the fantastic. The only sci-fi writer with whom he has even the remotest affinity is Philip K. Dick.

Ballard first made his name with a series of bizarre dystopian novels, the most popular of which was The Drowned World, the story of a lone man regressing into primitivism during a global climate crisis. As the Earth warms and sea levels rise, mankind’s remnants make for the still-temperate poles. But Ballard’s protagonist stays atop the submerged remains of London. After a series of misadventures, he finally abandons his lagoon and sets out toward the steadily broiling south, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.” When his publishers asked him to give the book a happy ending, Ballard replied that it already had one: “He’s going south.”

Other early novels like The Drought and The Crystal World further explored the psychological effects of environmental apocalypse, but Ballard’s sojourn in the genre came to an end with a personal tragedy that appeared to wound him more profoundly than his wartime experiences. During a 1964 trip to Spain, Ballard’s young wife died suddenly, leaving him with three children to raise on his own. He would later remark that his wife’s death “bowled me for six,” which seems to be an understatement. Almost overnight, his work began to undergo a radical stylistic change and he slowly abandoned the trappings of science fiction for the “inner space” of the psyche.

Despite the personal anguish from which he was no doubt suffering, this new direction brought Ballard to his creative peak and led him to produce one of the greatest and most disturbingly prophetic novels of the 20th century.


According to John Baxter’s (largely hostile) biography, The Inner Man, Ballard began searching for sexualized imagery of cars as early as 1970:

He outlined the type he preferred—no photographs of nude women sprawled over bonnets, but, rather, stories of a more secret sort: a beautiful Nordic blonde secretary services her boss in the back seat of a Mercedes; a honeymoon couple stranded in their car consummate their marriage in some pull-over or parking lot. The request was, he stressed, not lightly made. Such material, he said, was “extremely important” to him.

In one sense, Ballard’s interest was not entirely strange. By the late 1960s, the United States was already a decade into the heyday of its “car culture.” Marketing executives and Madison Avenue ad men eroticized the smooth contours, gleaming exteriors, garish fins and headlights, and imposing bulks of these powerful new vehicles to make them desirable to consumers. And as teenagers born into car culture entered puberty, their automobiles quickly became the preferred locus of fumbling sexual exploration, with more adolescents losing their virginity in the back seat than in the bedroom.

The phenomenon of the car crash was already iconic in all its gory detail. Jayne Mansfield had been decapitated in her Buick, James Dean had been crushed in his Porsche, and as Ballard himself would later point out, even the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in his Lincoln Continental was something like a car crash. The collision of automobiles took the young and the beautiful, and in a moment of orgasmic violence, transformed them into indelible and disfigured icons, mangled in steel.

Ballard’s exploration of this strange necrophilous obsession appeared in his first true classic, The Atrocity Exhibition. Inspired by the surrealist painters and writers like William Burroughs, the book is impossible to either classify or fully describe. Ballard called it the research findings of a psychologist in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. It consists of a series of disjointed meditations on such subjects as “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” which may have made Ballard the first man to predict the actor’s eventual presidency.

The seed of what would become Ballard’s most notorious novel was a chapter titled “Crash!,” which sounded like the name of a perverse Broadway musical. “The twentieth century,” he wrote, “has also given birth to a vast range of machines—computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons—where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator. An understanding of this identity can be found in a study of the automobile, which dominates the vectors of speed, aggression, violence and desire.”

With the car as the centerpiece of an unprecedented and technologically mediated existence, Ballard postulated the emergence of a new machine consciousness, in which man’s most erotic and violent impulses would be unleashed by his own creations: “From this and similar work it is clear that Freud’s classic distinction between the manifest and latent content of the inner world of the psyche now has to be applied to the outer world of reality.” Man’s dreams—good, bad, wet—had effectively become real.

This made explicit what was only implied in The Drowned World and Ballard’s other apocalyptic fictions: that the apocalypse, with its immense erotic possibilities of renewal, exploration, and fulfillment, might not be a bad thing:

It is clear that the car crash is seen as a fertilizing rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an erotic intensity impossible in any other form.

Here was Ballard’s most profound and perceptive transgression. Like those fascinated by the erotic spectacle of death—be it the Zapruder film, the George Floyd cell-phone video, or ISIS beheadings—“suburban housewives expressed a marked preoccupation with severe genital wounds of an obscene character.”

More prophetic still was Ballard’s belief that this is intimately tied to celebrity culture, which was then in relative infancy compared to the ubiquitous obsession we face today. “In an open category test,” he wrote, “volunteers were asked to name those living public figures most suitable as potential crash victims. Choices varied from Brigitte Bardot and Prof. Barnard to Mrs Pat Nixon and Madame Chiang.” This desire to see the famous dismantled is now made manifest in the prurient examinations of celebrity mental breakdowns, overdose deaths, and sex tapes. What could be more popular than a final episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that saw the entire clan obliterated in a fiery freeway pileup?

Ballard’s deranged researcher reports that all this violence and voyeurism has had a decidedly positive effect: “In all cases there was a conspicuous improvement in born marital and extramarital relationships, combined with a more tolerant attitude towards perverse behavior.” He links this to the most famous celebrity death of the 20th century: “The 552 spectators of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza were observed closely in follow-up surveys. Overall health and frequency of sexual activity increased notably over subjects in nearby Elm and Commerce Streets. Police reports indicate that Dealey Plaza has since become a minor sexual nuisance area.” Furthermore:

Relatives of auto-crash victims showed a similar upsurge in both sexual activity and overall levels of general health. Mourning periods were drastically reduced. After a brief initial period of withdrawal, relatives would revisit the site, usually attempting a discreet reenactment of the crash mode.


In an extreme 2% of cases spontaneous orgasms were experienced during a simulated run along the crash route. Surprisingly, these results parallel the increased frequency of sexual intercourse in new-car families, the showroom providing a widely popular erotic focus. Incidence of neurosis in new-car families is also markedly less.

Ballard followed “Crash!” with a practical demonstration—an art installation consisting entirely of multiple smashed cars and a topless young woman. It was, Ballard later explained, “designed to provoke the audience. The whole thing was a psychological experiment—to see if my basic hunch about the latent, hidden psychology, the depth-psychology of the car crash, was on the right track. Whether my hypothesis was accurate.” He was “lab-testing” the novel that would become Crash, and the results were encouraging: “The cars were attacked, windows ripped off. Those windows that weren’t broken already were smashed. One of the cars was upended, another splashed with white paint.” He continued:

Now the whole thing was a speculative illustration of a scene in The Atrocity Exhibition. I had speculated in my book about how the people might behave. And in the real show the guests at the party and the visitors later behaved in pretty much the way I had anticipated. It was not so much an exhibition of sculpture as almost of experimental psychology, using the medium of the fine art show. People were unnerved, you see. There was enormous hostility.

With somewhat disturbing enthusiasm, he added:

The topless girl was almost raped in the back seat of the Pontiac (or so she claimed). A woman journalist from New Society began to interview me among the mayhem, but became so overwrought with indignation, of which the journal had an unlimited supply, that she had to be restrained from attacking me.

Baxter, in keeping with his general agenda of debunking Ballard’s self-mythology, claimed that this was all wild exaggeration: “The few who attended can recall only a sense of dark and lowering threat, characterized by John Clute as ‘Gigeresque.’” Of course, this reference to the death-and-sex saturated work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger—most famous for designing the phallic-headed, body-penetrating monster in the film Alien—could also be seen as an indication of artistic success.


Having hit upon this metaphor, Ballard sought to weave it into a (somewhat) more conventional narrative with what appears to have been considerable obsession. About the development of Crash, Baxter writes:

Jim usually burned his manuscripts, but in this case both the first draft and a corrected typescript survive. The former is a barely decipherable maze of over-scrawled second, third and fourth thoughts. Even the clean copy he delivered to [publisher Jonathan] Cape early in 1972 is littered with his handwritten corrections. The intensity of his effort is palpable. … Jim claimed to have created it in a state of what he called “willed madness”—self-induced erotic hysteria.

The Marquis de Sade, Baxter notes, was one of Ballard’s chief inspirations—particularly his masterpiece, the brilliant and unreadably disgusting 120 Days of Sodom, which Ballard described as “a black cathedral of a book, forcing us to realize that imagination transcends morality.” However, Ballard did not want to simply transpose Sade to the 1970s. If he hoped to fashion a cathedral of a novel, it would be steel, chrome-plated, and studded with battery-powered silicon vibrators—a church for an age in which the technologies of pleasure had long since outstripped even Sade’s demented imagination.

The Genocidal Imagination
Philosophies of human cruelty, from Sade to October 7th.

The plot of the book that emerged from this “willed madness” barely exists. Crash is almost entirely a mood piece, though it does have a central impetus and sense of purpose that propel the narrative toward its conclusion like a Porsche careening toward a guardrail. In both form and prose, the novel is white hot.

The novel’s protagonist—a television producer impishly named James Ballard—is involved in a vaguely unsatisfying open marriage with his wife Catherine. That is, more or less, all we learn about them at the outset and we are never told much more. Ballard has no time for the vulgar Freudianisms of most writers—he displays no interest in where his characters were born, what their childhoods and adolescences were like, and the other banalities expected from literary fiction. We will never learn more about these people, he seems to be saying, than we will from seeing them at their most extreme.

Driving home from work one night, the fictional Ballard smashes headlong into an oncoming car containing a man and a woman. The man is horribly killed, while Ballard and the woman—who we will later learn is named Helen—are severely injured. During his convalescence in hospital, Ballard encounters Dr. Robert Vaughan, a celebrity scientist of sorts who will provide the key to the strange underworld into which Ballard and Catherine will soon be admitted. After he is discharged from hospital, Ballard has a chance meeting with Helen in an automobile junkyard that leads to an intense sexual encounter. Helen then guides Ballard into Vaughan’s circle of car-crash fetishists, including stunt-driver Seagrave and the disabled Gabrielle.

Fascinated by Vaughan’s obsessive study of the car crash, including stacks of photographs and medical reports, Ballard joins the group’s exploration of traumatic sexuality. He watches as they stage car crashes, helps Vaughan document the horrors of a highway pileup, watches Vaughan have sex with Catherine in the backseat of his car during a carwash, and has further sexual encounters with Gabrielle and finally Vaughan himself. The book ends with the near-fulfillment of Vaughn’s ultimate fantasy: Killing movie star Elizabeth Taylor in a car crash. He almost succeeds but kills himself in the attempt. “I need to drive again,” Ballard ominously tells his wife afterwards, “before it all goes.”

This bizarre fairytale encompasses many themes, but it is primarily driven by the idea of hyper-sexuality as a response and resistance to trauma. As the fictional Ballard puts it, “the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash.” From the moment of impact, he sees sex everywhere, including in inanimate objects. The near-destruction of his body has uncovered a polymorphous sexuality beneath the shattered banality of his upper-middle-class life. “The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body,” he says. The accident awakens what he calls his “trauma of dreams.” The same is true of Helen. When Ballard first sees her in the wreckage of her car, he reflects: “The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality, releasing within its twisted bulkheads and leaking engine coolant all the deviant possibilities of her sex.”

This new hyper-sexuality is instantly sensed by the women in Ballard’s life. Of his polyamorous wife Catherine, he says, “My body, which she had placed in a particular sexual perspective within a year or so of our marriage, now aroused her again. She was fascinated by the scars on my chest.” After she meets Vaughan for the first time, Catherine and Ballard arouse each other with fantasies of his genitals. Helen also embarks on a sexual odyssey: “During the first months after [her husband’s] death,” Ballard observes, “she moved through a series of rapidly consumed affairs, as if taking the genitalia of all these men into her hands and her vagina would in some way bring her husband back to life, and that all this semen mixed within her womb would quicken the fading image of the dead man within her mind.”

Sex as a kind of exorcism or purification ultimately becomes a kind of scientific voyeurism. After witnessing a crash, Ballard says:

Vaughan and I felt a sense of professional detachment, in which the first workings of some kind of true involvement were revealed. My horror and disgust at the sight of these appalling injuries had given way to a lucid acceptance that the translation of these injuries in terms of our fantasies and sexual behavior was the only means of reinvigorating these wounded and dying victims.

This voyeurism leads, inevitably, to a pornographic understanding of reality. Everything becomes an act of watching, often through the rearview mirror in which Ballard sees Vaughan have sex with prostitutes and then Catherine. These acts assume the ritualistic quality of commercial pornography, with their itemized lists of performances and positions that almost never deviate from the prescribed formula. Ballard refers to the “stylized positions” Vaughan assumes with his backseat prostitutes and then the “slow-motion films of test collisions that he had photographed with his cine-camera. Sitting in the darkness on the floor cushions, we watched the silent impacts flicker on the wall above our heads. The repeated sequences of crashing cars first calmed and then aroused me.”

Catherine soon joins Ballard in his voyeurism. “In her sophisticated eyes,” he tells us, “I was already becoming a kind of emotional cassette, taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives—television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” This fascination has been long-nurtured by pop culture, he says, as Catherine’s “pleasantly promiscuous mind, fed for years on a diet of aircraft disasters and war newsreels, of violence transmitted in darkened cinemas, made an immediate connection between my accident and all the nightmare fatalities of the world perceived as part of her sexual recreations.” 

The 1973 first hardcover edition of Crash published by Jonathan Cape (left) and the 1975 Panther paperback.

But the infinite repetitions of pornography finally induce boredom. Vaughan eventually tells Ballard, “One car crash looks like another.” Indeed, in many ways, Crash echoes one of the uncanniest aspects of pornography—there is something oddly medical about it. Once repetition has stripped away erotic novelty, pornography is like observing a gynecological exam. This scientific detachment is reflected in the language of Crash, which never uses the standard obscenities of pornographic literature, but rather the terminology of the anatomical textbook—pages of “anus,” “penis,” and “vagina,” all properly cataloged and analyzed.

Breaking through this pornographic tedium, the book implies, is achieved by celebrity culture, personified in some ways by Vaughan himself, who has already appeared on television talk shows. Vaughan resembles intellectual gurus like Marshall McLuhan and Jordan Peterson or tech heroes like Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel. He is described as “one of the first of the new-style TV scientists”; a man who “combined a high degree of personal glamor—heavy black hair over a scarred face, an American combat jacket—with an aggressive lecture-theater manner and complete conviction in his subject matter, the application of computerized techniques to the control of all international traffic systems.”

Like a Mark David Chapman figure with an IQ of 180, Vaughn has set himself on a quest for celebrity assassination, making death the ultimate consummation of fame. “Around the deaths of James Dean and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate fantasies,” Ballard recounts. “His imagination was a target gallery of screen actresses, politicians, business tycoons, and television executives.” This has led to dress rehearsals in which Vaughan’s associate Seagrave exchanges identities and genders, cosplaying the celebrity target: “Seagrave’s face had already been made up to resemble the screen actress’s, mascara and pancake darkening his pale skin. This immaculate mask of a woman’s face resembled a nightmare parody of the actress, far more sinister than the cosmetic wounds at that moment being applied to her.”

For Vaughan, this is all shot through with sexuality:

[As we] strolled together through the airport parking lots, searching for a car to borrow, Vaughan would cross-examine me about the ways in which Marilyn Monroe or Lee Harvey Oswald would probably have had intercourse in their cars, Armstrong, Warhol, Raquel Welch … their choice of vehicle and model year, their postures and favorite erogenous zones, the freeways and autostradas of Europe and North America along which they moved in Vaughan’s mind, their bodies funded by their limitless sexualities, love, tenderness and eroticism.

It is as if the sex appeal of the celebrity can only be fully realized through the eroticism of their deaths, with the admonition that, “The automobile crash had made possible the final and longed-for union of the actress and the members of her audience.” The moment that James Dean failed to swerve or Princess Diana collided with a Paris tunnel etched them forever into the world’s collective unconscious.

Pornography, media, and celebrity all require technology. Out of this simple fact, Ballard derived his famous equation: “sex x technology = the future.” Given the ubiquity of internet porn, social-media celebrities, and an emergent AI that will soon be capable of generating our most deranged fantasies in virtual reality, this may constitute Ballard’s single most prescient and prophetic admonition.


This psychotic discourse between sex and technology permeates Crash. On almost every page, there is some allusion or explicit description of man’s growing convergence, physically and psychologically, with his machines. In a car-crash photo, Ballard sees “the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver’s crotch as if in some calibrated act of machine fellatio.” To Vaughan, “these wounds were the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.” Ballard asks, “How could I bring her to life—by ramming one of these massive steel plugs into a socket at the base of her spine?” He refers to a space “crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded sections of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule”—an acknowledgement of the erotic fantasies unconsciously entertained by all fans of the space program’s phallic rockets, helmets as round and bulbous as a female breast or the male glans, and docking ports like gaping orifices.

As Ballard’s obsession deepens, sex and technology do not just multiply but merge. “The anonymity of this road junction reminded me of Renata’s body,” he says of his mistress, “with its polite repertory of vents and cleavages, which one day would become as strange and meaningful to some suburban husband as these kerb-stones and marker lines were to myself.” When Vaughan and Catherine have sex in the womb of the carwash, Ballard remarks, “The distant headlamps, refracted through the soap solution jetting across the windows, covered their bodies with a luminescent glow, like two semi-metallic human beings of the distant future making love in a chromium bower.”

This reaches its peak when Ballard has sex with Gabrielle, who resembles a cyborg of scarred flesh and steel, crippled by a car accident, her body encased in braces. When Ballard examines her exposed breast, “For some reason I had expected it to be a detachable latex structure, fitted on each morning along with her spinal brace and leg supports, and I felt vaguely disappointed that it should be made of her own flesh.” Enraptured by the signs of technological penetration on Gabrielle’s body, Ballard ejaculates repeatedly into her scars. “What wounds,” he muses, “would create the sexual possibilities of the invisible technologies of thermonuclear reaction chambers, white-tiled control rooms, the mysterious scenarios of computer circuitry?”

Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1996)

None of this is easy to absorb, and almost from the moment it was written, Crash and its author were accused of depravity and insanity. The New York Times critic described it as “hands-down, the most repulsive book I’ve yet to come across” before adding, “And as reader, I promise you, only a virtuoso foulness can turn my stomach.” Ballard claimed that one publishing house reader’s response read, “Author is beyond psychiatric help, do not publish”—a story that may or may not be true, but which certainly sounds plausible.

But Crash is not mad. It is, in fact, a terrifyingly sane book. Much like Sade’s best work, one senses throughout that Ballard is not crazy. Instead, he is offering a scientific examination of pathology. Sade’s works are littered with precise enumerations, lengthy descriptions of beautifully set tables and expensive furniture, the configurations into which bodies may be manipulated for maximization of pleasure—he was, after all, a man of the Enlightenment. Ballard was a man of the atomic age. He experienced World War II up close from the perspective of its victims, and he knew that no sane method could make sense of these events, which ended with the release of a weapon that liquidated hundreds of thousands but likely saved millions. He understood that we can only grasp the chaos of the human psyche by learning to speak its language and to read the signs it has left in the wreckage.

Out of what the fictional Ballard calls “a long punitive expedition into my own nervous system” comes not dementia, but something like a rebirth—a necessarily violent reawakening of the creative force. In one of the most beautiful passages in Crash, Ballard contemplates:

fragments of broken safety glass, brushed to one side by generations of ambulance attendants. … I stared down at this dusty necklace, the debris of a thousand automobile accidents. Within fifty years, as more and more cars collided here, the glass fragments would form a sizable bar, within thirty years a beach of sharp crystal. A new race of beachcombers might appear, squatting on these heaps of fractured windshields, sifting them for cigarette butts, spent condoms and loose coins. Buried beneath this new geological layer laid down by the age of the automobile accident would be my own small death, as anonymous as a vitrified scar in a fossil tree.

A new world will emerge from the debris of an apocalypse, and our own trivial expiration will become part of the process as Earth rebuilds itself from our remains. This vision is consummated when Ballard takes an LSD trip that ends in a mystical experience:

An armada of angelic creatures, each surrounded by an immense corona of light, was landing on the motorway on either side of us, sweeping down in opposite directions. They soared past, a few feet above the ground, landing everywhere on these endless runways that covered the landscape. I realized that all these roads and expressways had been built by us unknowingly for their reception.

It is easy to be subsumed by Crash’s pageantry of carnage and forget that, in the end, one is reading an optimistic book. What Walter Benjamin called “the storm of progress” has passed, but this need not be tragic. It may be that this storm has left behind a full revelation of ourselves, a chance to rebuild those selves in the image of the absolute truths we have stomped down into the chthonic depths of our psyches. Crashed by technological autogeddon, we now have no choice but to confront these truths, and we may find that this is a great gift rather than a terrible judgment. It is a chance to be, at long last, who we really are.


Ballard never topped Crash as an artistic achievement. That does not mean, however, that he should have quit while he was ahead. Over the decades that followed, he would write other fascinating explorations of urban dystopia like High-Rise and Concrete Island, along with his fictionalized war memoir Empire of the Sun (his only true bestseller) and my personal favorite, The Kindness of Women. Ballard lived long enough to see the emergence of a new generation of admirers who would take up his themes of apocalypse and renewal, such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self, although he rarely left his modest suburban home in Shepperton until a short time before his death in 2009. It was only then, unfortunately, that the British literary establishment realized what it had lost.

In 1996, Ballard’s greatest novel was given a second life that proved to be as controversial as its first. Canadian art-horror filmmaker David Cronenberg, who had long shared Ballard’s obsessions with the intersection of sex and technology, adapted Crash into a mesmerizing film starring James Spader and Holly Hunter. Largely faithful to the book, it won a special prize at Cannes—much to the consternation of some jury members. In the Anglophone world, its release detonated like the atomic bomb Ballard believed had saved his life.

The late British critic Alexander Walker declared the film “beyond the bounds of depravity” and the tabloids spearheaded a torches-and-bonfire campaign against it. The film was banned by Westminster Council and American distributor Ted Turner refused to release it. Eventually, it was given an arthouse run in the United States, where it bore the dreaded NC-17 rating. But like the novel on which it was based, David Cronenberg’s Crash has benefitted from a more sober reassessment. It would later be named one of the best films of the ’90s by Martin Scorsese, and it has since developed a strong cult following.

It is not uncommon to look back on a once-controversial film and say, “It’s tame by today’s standards.” In the case of Crash, this is impossible, because the ideas the film explores are timelessly provocative. Like only a handful of films—Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, John Ford’s The Informer, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s graphic adaptation of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom—there is almost no chance that time will diminish its emotional and psychological impact. 

Brutal and Unreformed—Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ at 50
Venner removes his shirt before attacking Amy, and reveals himself to be quite the handsome brute. But the dominance he establishes over her, rewarded by her passionate embrace and convulsive orgasm, is fleeting.

The first time I saw the film—with its murmured dialogue, fetishistic sex scenes, devastating detachment, and sudden crushing moments of violence—I was left with precisely the “Gigeresque” feeling with which many reacted to Ballard’s exhibition of crashed cars. Something about the experience profoundly disturbed me in a way that, to this day, I cannot fully explain. 

It may simply have been what the film said about movies themselves, and by extension, the media in general. In Crash, Cronenberg combined the aesthetics of the two most popular genres of the 1990s—softcore erotica and the violent action thriller—to reveal the troubling psychology beneath both genres. Films like Basic Instinct and Die Hard, he seemed to be saying, only appear to be entertainment, but we enjoy them because they are actually expressions of our primal desire to fuck and kill. With Crash, Cronenberg held a mirror up to human perversity.

Ballard himself famously declared that the film was superior to his novel, and he passionately defended it in the midst of controversy. His generosity was refreshing, considering most writers’ reactions to adaptations of their work, but it was not fully justified. Crash the novel is all but flawless, while Crash the film is brilliant but noticeably imperfect. Some of the differences between the book and the film are interesting. For example, Ballard’s prose is volcanic, but Cronenberg’s treatment of the material is icy. It feels like a film shot by a scientist through a microscope, which has its own singular integrity. The car crashes, moreover, are not intellectualized as in the book but rendered with sudden and primal violence, which is not literary but is extremely effective in cinema. 

Cronenberg’s decision to jettison Vaughan’s desire to kill Elizabeth Taylor in a car crash, however, was a mistake. Cronenberg did so for the best of reasons—he did not want to encourage celebrity stalkers and believed that no movie star would agree to be depicted as the victim of a potential assassin. Nonetheless, the omission effectively jettisons the theme of celebrity culture (brief references to Jayne Mansfield’s and James Dean’s deaths remain), which is essential to the book’s thesis and impact. And Elias Koteas is miscast as Vaughan, whom the novel portrays as an intellectual being steadily consumed by his own mind. Koteas’s Vaughan is too thuggish, and in the end, not particularly bright. It is doubtful that he could come up with the vast ideas that drive his brutal fantasies.

But many moments in the film are the equal of anything in the book. Cronenberg’s depiction of the sexual encounter between Vaughn and Catherine in the carwash is an extraordinary piece of cinema, perfectly capturing in pure imagery Ballard’s elaborate theories of sex and technology. And Rosanna Arquette is outstanding as Gabrielle, radiating the feral sexuality her character has forged out of her shattered body.

Years from now, Crash may yet be one of the few films of the 1990s to survive the white noise of today’s media landscape. The internet was in its infancy when Crash was released, but as the fiber-optic interfaces multiply and fascination with transhumanism grows, the film’s power will only be enhanced rather than diminished. We will realize, sooner or later, that the world has become Crash.


Crash is a testament to what the novel can still do. When it was published, movies and television had long since outstripped the written word as the center of cultural consciousness. Yet Ballard’s book—and indeed all his work—is more popular and influential today than it ever was. It has refused to be buried by a media landscape in which it ought to have long since become extinct. This says something, I think, about the future of literature. Most fiction published today is simply dull—navel-gazing narcissism or politically correct gobbledygook or both. In other words, it is either about something uninteresting or about nothing at all. Crash proves that literary greatness in such a situation is impossible.

In this sense, Crash is part of a kind of shadow literature—unacknowledged by the literary establishment, but unmistakably present in the works of writers like Michel Houellebecq, Chuck Palahniuk, and Victor Pelevin, as well as in Ballard’s own strange afterlife. Not coincidentally, much of this literature is strongly influenced by science fiction, which at its best has always been a literature of ideas. These works slice and probe our inner space, carefully exploring and documenting each alien lobe of the cerebellum. They reveal that our own existence is, in its own way, extraterrestrial. We understand it no better than we would the minds and mores of another planet. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.” Books like Crash remind us that we do things differently here too.

If genuinely provocative literature is to have a future, it will be found in these shadows. If the novel has one great advantage over other media, it is that it can synthesize emotion and ideas, pathos and logos, almost effortlessly. Music and cinema struggle to convey ideas, while the endless supply of information provided by the internet is corrupted by falsehood and calculated derangement. The novel, on the other hand, can transcribe our psyches with formidable accuracy. This is a terrifying power, and that terror may be why so many of those who claim to be literature’s advocates found—and continue to find—Crash impossible to tolerate.

And there is much in Crash that is indeed intolerable, in the sense that no sane person can fully accept its implications. But like Sade, I do not think Ballard is asking us to. He is presenting scenarios of the extreme in order to illustrate the pathology of the normal. There is indeed a normal, he seems to say, but it is not what you think it is. It is far more terrible and sensual than you have been told. And deep down, you know that. You just require a bit of a push, a sudden impact, to finally admit it.

All of Ballard’s work seems to be saying that it is only through minute examination of our complex psyches that we can understand and liberate ourselves from what we find there. But where others found only dystopia, Ballard saw the “forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.” His is a perverse kind of hope, but it is hope nonetheless.

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