BOOK (1973)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

by J.G. Ballard
Jonathan Cape

On a busy flyover near London's bustling airport, one-time television scientist Robert Vaughan dies in a car crash of his own making - a smash that was, bizarrely, to have been his greatest sexual conquest. Unfortunately, one thing made it a failure: the crash hadn't also taken the life of 1960s sex siren Elizabeth Taylor.

So begins one of the 20th century's most controversial and, according to fans, most misunderstood novels. Crash, first published as the age of the motorway swung into force, made British author J.G. Ballard's view of technology as a dehumanising and malign force one of the recent cornerstones of literature and pop culture.

The plot is simple, if disturbing: a wealthy London media type - bearing the name of the author - finds himself sexually aroused by a car accident he's involved in. The crash kills the driver of another vehicle and the narrator then begins an affair with the dead man's widow. The relationship sees them first make love in the front seat of a car but continues on to successively more perverse and morbid acts that incorporate increasingly smashed-up wrecks.

As a result of his newfound obsession, Ballard's hero falls into the orbit of Vaughan, a man who boasts a far more extreme form of the same fantasy. For Vaughan, the collision of flesh and metal is a form of copulation, and the hundreds of scars he bears from the pursuit of the perfect sex-crash are akin to notches on the bedposts of more orthodox sexual adventurers.

On the face of it, Crash is a vivid and pornographic account of a thoroughly modern fascination. Deeper, however, it's a frightening exploration of man's enslavement to technology. Crash's narrator has become disconnected from reality: he is enraptured by the confluences of flesh and metal, seeing incongruous links between man-made, inanimate objects such as steering wheels, car window panes, even the steel lighting arrangements of the airport, and the curves, hair and flesh of the women he conquers.

That's not surprising considering he lives in an environment equally as detached: his world is bound by motorways, the curtain-walling of housing estates and, always, the omnipresence of the airport.

His relationships are similarly divorced from humanity. His wife lives for, and seems to have married only for, pleasures of the flesh and Ballard introduces all but a handful of his hero's friends in only the most cursory of ways: his relationships are purely functional.

For Ballard, the car represents the peak of technology, of which he wrote: 'Almost every aspect of modern life is there - both for good and for ill.'