Taking The Top Off His Skull:
The Genesis of J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’
(originally published at Ballardian.com in March 2017)
Special edition of Crash, Fourth Estate, April 2017
In the opinion of many, including its author, Crash can be considered J.G. Ballard’s finest work. A special hardback edition of the novel is due for publication on [6 April 2017], edited by Chris Beckett, archivist for the Ballard papers at the British Library. In anticipation of Fourth Estate’s new edition, I take a look at the development of the ideas that lay behind this, the most notorious of Ballard’s books.
The new edition of Crash is a large-
The book’s first chapter – a retrospective description by the first-
Chris Foss’s cover for the 1970s Panther paperback edition.
The car, death, celebrity, sex: these are the specific motifs of Crash. But other, more general preoccupations are also brought to the reader’s attention in the first few pages. James notes that Vaughan has been obsessively photographing the film actress, and this theme of watching and recording will play throughout the novel. James and Vaughan spend hours at a time watching films of crashes; there are endless perusals of photographs and advertisements; and sexual activity loses its interest unless the participants are being observed or – even better – recorded.
There are also suggestions as to the abstract nature of the reality inhabited by James and Vaughan. Firstly, we are told that Vaughan has devised a ‘formula’ for the death of the actress, and the book as a whole contains numerous references to ‘ciphers’, ‘codes’ and ‘symbols’, as well as to events and actions being ‘abstract’ or ‘stylized’ – as in this description by James of the firemen attempting to cut him free after his initial crash:
Even their smallest movements seemed to be formalized, hands reaching towards me in a series of coded gestures. If one of them had unbuttoned his coarse serge trousers to reveal his genitalia, and pressed his penis into the bloody crotch of my armpit, even this bizarre act would have been acceptable in terms of the stylization of violence and rescue.
Secondly, James describes how Vaughan matches the photographs that he has taken of Elizabeth Taylor with portraits of wounds found in a plastic surgery textbook – and throughout the novel James himself continually relates objects one to another (comparing human body parts to components of the automobile is a particular favourite). Ballard recognises that we no longer find an immanent meaning in the world and therefore tend to use either a mental abstraction, or the form of something familiar, in order to project significance onto elements of the external landscape. This theme of the abstract nature of reality is articulated quite precisely later on in the novel: ‘The destruction of this motor-
One way for James and Vaughan to try and break through the abstract and conceptualised nature of their world is to accept the brute nature of the human body. This is emphasised by Ballard’s descriptions in the opening chapter: seat-
Vaughan’s behaviour – filming the mutilated or dying accident victims, resisting those who try and pull him away, even fighting with the ambulance staff – is a manifestation of that death of affect which Ballard had noted during the 1960s. Images of war and disaster – Biafra, Vietnam, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination – were failing to elicit the expected human responses of pity or horror, which had been replaced by the fascination of the spectator. A related notion occurs towards the end of the first chapter, when James reflects upon the various motor accidents that he and Vaughan had imagined together – the crashes of ‘psychopaths’, ‘neurasthenic housewives’, ‘excited schizophrenics’, ‘manic-
The Death of Affect -
One further theme of the novel is to be found in the opening chapter’s final sentence, which describes the cars on Western Avenue ‘moving together towards their celebration of wounds’. Here is the first suggestion that Crash will conceive of the car accident in terms of re-
This pervasive sexuality filled the air, as if we were members of a congregation leaving after a sermon urging us to celebrate our sexualities with friends and strangers, and were driving into the night to imitate the bloody eucharist we had observed ...
As Ballard explained to Robert Louit in 2004: ‘Crash is a psychopathic hymn, a deranged act of worship. It sees the car crash as a religious sacrament.’1
Of course the linking of death, sex and technology is hardly original with Ballard. An early precursor might be Zola’s La Bête Humaine, in which the aggressive train driver, Lantier, has a relationship with his engine that borders on the sexual; and his cousin Flore – who brings about numerous deaths when she deliberately causes a train crash – is obsessed by accidents:
She had come to look at the body, too. Accidents had always fascinated her. The minute she heard that an animal had been knocked down or that someone had been run over by a train she would come running to see.
Moving forward from the train to the automobile, one might think of the Futurists as being the first to link the car with death and eroticism. But as Ricarda Vidal points out in Death and Desire in Car Crash Culture, the car-
[Although] Futurism needed the destruction of the initial crash in order to be born and also to overcome it, the parameters of its world exclude it. Indeed the mythologized version of Marinetti's crash in the 'Founding and Manifesto of Futurism' (1909) is the only time that it appears in Futurist art and literature. While there are hundreds of paintings of speed and cars in motion, there is not a single depiction of the car crash.
The philosophy of the Futurist movement is one of increasing intensification and speed – a linear progress which can never result in orgasm, just ever-
The Futurist dream: Ambrosini’s painting Mussolini the Aviator
For another precursor, one can point to Buñuel and Dali’s short film Un Chien Andalou (1929), which features a man looking on excitedly from a window as a young woman is run over by a car; sexually aroused by the incident, he then fondles his unwilling female companion. This is a film which, so he tells us in Miracles of Life, Ballard saw as a schoolboy at the Cambridge film society. We can only speculate as to the extent to which this or other early experiences might have eventually contributed to the writing of Crash, slowly working their way up through the author’s unconscious. As a young boy in Shanghai, for example, Ballard was chauffeured around the city in the family car, observing the excitement and bloody mayhem on the streets and puzzling at the inviting smiles of the White Russian bar-
Convoys of chauffeur-
Then there was the spectacle of the visiting American Hell-
However, one has to look hard to find references to car-
Even the death of his wife and six-
But even this shows no interest in the automobile itself, and there is no sexual element to the death of his wife and daughter, only Traven’s existential crisis and personal sorrow.
The Drought, which Ballard finished writing in early 1964, features a long, desperate car journey to the sea, amidst wrecked and deserted vehicles – but Crash this is not. The real significance of The Drought is that the relationships of the characters to the landscape – and their relationships with each other – become increasingly abstract, freighted with each character’s very individual obsessions. This development is indicated early on in the novel, as the draining river leaves the boats, together with the dead birds and fishes, marooned and isolated in the drying mud, while Doctor Ransom gazes at his faded reproduction of Yves Tanguy’s ‘Jour de Lenteur’:
With its smooth, pebble-
The Drought, Ballard later noted, ‘contains so many of the ideas – quantified image, isolated object, and emotion detached from any human context – that I began to develop in The Atrocity Exhibition and in Crash. They were all implicit in that book.’6
Quantified image, isolated object: Yves Tanguy’s Jour de Lenteur (photo by Jacqueline Hyde, Centre Pompidou, MNAM-
The abstract nature of the reality depicted in The Drought is reflected in Ballard’s description of the way in which objects or events provide some kind of coded message: for example, the dead trees form ‘brittle ciphers’, shadows cover the ground with ‘calligraphic patterns’, and the sunlight reflects off a concrete embankment ‘like Hindu yantras’. The Drought’s emphasis on isolated objects and the coded nature of the world owes much to Ballard’s longstanding interest in the surrealist painters: these were the same characteristics to be found in Dali, Ernst and de Chirico, as he described in a 1966 article ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’:
If anything, surrealist painting has one dominant characteristic: a glassy isolation, as if all the objects in its landscapes had been drained of their emotional associations, the accretions of sentiment and common usage. What they demonstrate is that the most commonplace elements of reality -
But by the time The Drought was published in England, Ballard’s life had taken a dramatic turn: while on a family holiday in southern Spain in September 1964 his wife had developed pneumonia and died. After watching her being buried in the cemetery at Alicante, Ballard drove his three young children all the way back to England: another long, desperate car journey.
Little emerged from Ballard’s typewriter during the first year-
That book would contain a good deal of material which shared the themes of Crash, but such concerns were largely absent from the first few sections to be published. ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ does, however, include one short passage – less than 100 words – describing the collisions of test cars and the dramatic effect on the plastic dummies that stand in for the accident victims.7 So here, in the first of the condensed novels, we have the automobile crash and, implicitly, death – but not yet sex or celebrity. That passage from ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ would reappear at the start of the voiceover to Harley Cokeliss’s 1971 film ‘Crash!’, and in Ballard’s spoken contribution to the film he described his feelings upon viewing such test collisions:
It was like some strange technological ballet. I remember looking at these films and thinking about the strange psychological dimensions they seemed to touch. They seemed to say something about the way everything becomes more and more stylised, more and more cut off from ordinary feeling.
Test crash footage from Harley Cokeliss’s film Crash!
If seeing these films had indeed started Ballard’s mind moving along a trajectory that would lead to Crash, there were few signs of it in the next three condensed novels: ‘The Assassination Weapon’, ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, all published in mid-
[A] touring version of Kienholz's ‘Dodge 38’ was seen travelling at speed on a motorway yesterday, a wrecked white car with the plastic dummies of a World War III pilot and a girl with facial burns making love among a refuse of bubble-
Kienholz’s sculpture incorporates a number of the themes of Crash: the front of the vehicle is foreshortened, as if it has been in an accident; the way in which the woman’s body lies across the back seat suggests a disconcerting combination of sexual congress and accident victim (in fact it resembles a corpse more than a living being); and the car is filled with debris, bringing to mind the brute nature of human existence and lack of glamour which prevail throughout Ballard’s novel.
Kienholz’ sculpture -
Interior of Back Seat Dodge '38
Another artwork, dating from 1966, might also have contained ideas that fed into Crash. Christopher Logue’s poster-
Christopher Logue’s poster poem Sex War Sex Cars Sex
Although lacking in terms of automobile accidents, these first four condensed novels do contain numerous references to celebrities as part of the landscape of the modern world: Lee Harvey Oswald and Malcolm X appear in the sky as quasars; the images of Jackie Kennedy, Sigmund Freud and Marilyn Monroe turn up on gigantic advertising signs; and plaster casts of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Burton and Greta Garbo are filmed in bizarre poses. Most prominent of all is Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan will dream of dying in his last crash:
Dr. Nathan limped along the drainage culvert, peering at the huge figure of a dark-
These early sections of The Atrocity Exhibition incorporate other themes that will feature in Crash – but not yet in connection with the automobile and its crashes. There are numerous references to ciphers and yantras, as well as a frequent use of religious terminology, e.g. ‘epiphany of this death’, ‘presiding deity’, ‘this eucharist of the madonna of the hoardings’, and the notion of a resurrection or re-
The key period
In a manifesto for his new fiction – ‘Notes from Nowhere’, published in New Worlds in October 1966 – Ballard explained that:
... these four published [condensed] ‘novels’, and those that I am working on now, contain a number of other ideas. However, one can distinguish between the manifest content, i.e. the attempt to produce a new ‘mythology’ out of the intersecting identities of J. F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, smashed automobiles and dead apartments, and the latent content, the shift in geometric formula from one chapter to the next.
The reference here to ‘smashed automobiles’ is intriguing because, except for the brief description of test crashes in ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ and a single reference to a ‘waste lot of wrecked cars’ in ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, such smashes are notable by their absence in the first four condensed novels. However, they would play a major role in the story that Ballard was in the process of writing, which he described in ‘Notes to Nowhere’ as concerned with ‘a disaster in space ... translated into the terms of our own inner and outer environments’. That story was ‘The Death Module’ – which was included in The Atrocity Exhibition under the title ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’. However, it did not appear in print until July 1967, by which time Ballard had incorporated the real-
The protagonist of ‘The Death Module’, named Trabert, aims to resurrect the dead Apollo astronauts by means of the rather obscure technique of restaging President Kennedy's assassination as a car crash. But Kennedy’s is not the only crash – indeed, automobile smashes feature throughout the story:
These erotic films, over which presided the mutilated figure of Ralph Nader, were screened above Dr. Nathan's head as he moved along the lines of smashed cars. Illuminated by the arc-
And there we have it in just a few lines: the car, death, celebrity, sex – the key motifs of Crash.11 ‘The Death Module’ also continues the re-
In fact, publication of ‘The Death Module’ had been preceded by that of ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’, which had appeared in Ambit during the early part of 1967. This was the first of Ballard’s pseudo-
[F]or the majority of the spectators the events in Dealey Plaza were unconsciously perceived as those of a massive multiple-
As with ‘The Death Module’, therefore, celebrity played a central role – it was present right at the start of Ballard’s exploration of the psychological significance of automobiles and their crashes. Celebrities, he believed, play a major role in our imaginations, and they therefore help mediate – especially at an unconscious level – the relationship between cars, death and sex:
In Crash I would openly propose a strong connection between sexuality and the car crash, a fusion largely driven by the cult of celebrity. It seemed obvious that the deaths of famous people in car crashes resonated far more deeply than their deaths in plane crashes or hotel fires, as one could see from Kennedy's death in his Dallas motorcade (a special kind of car crash), to the grim and ghastly death of Princess Diana in the Paris underpass. (Miracles of Life)
In these early Atrocity Exhibition stories, Ballard’s interest was not yet expressed in terms of actual celebrity deaths, such as those of James Dean, Camus or Eddie Cochran. But by the time that ‘The Death Module’ was published, celebrity auto-
Mansfield was aged 34, the same age at death as Mary Ballard. Perhaps this was another reason why Ballard’s mind now fixed on celebrity auto-
Jayne Mansfield’s fatal crash, featured on the cover of Stephen Bayley’s book Death Drive
Death and sex
With these two publications in the first half of 1967, Ballard had brought onto centre-
Ballard may have referred to one possible explanation during a short interview that he gave on America’s National Public Radio in 1998. A listener recalls him explaining that he had come across a traffic accident in which a beautiful woman had ended up dead and nearly naked, reclining on the back seat of the car, with all the passers-
Ballard’s association of death with sex should come as no surprise, given the author’s well-
I believe that Crash is less a hymn to death than an attempt to appease death, to buy off the executioner who waits for us all in a quiet garden nearby, like Bacon's headless figure in his herringbone jacket who sits patiently at a table with a machine gun beside him. Crash is set at a point where sex and death intersect, though the graph is difficult to read and is constantly recalibrating itself. (Miracles of Life)
For Ballard, the connection between death, sex and rebirth was not just conceptual, or something forged deep in the unconscious. Rather, it was a reality in his own life at the most personal level. In Miracles of Life, he admits that, although he passed through a period of celibacy after his wife’s death, this was followed by ‘a kind of desperate promiscuity, a form of shock treatment in which I was trying to will myself to come alive’. In like manner, the narrator of Crash reflects that Helen Remington, the widow of the man whose death he himself has caused, is entering a period of ‘unthinking promiscuity through which most people pass after a bereavement’. And a year before he died, in an outline for a never-
A significant event had occurred in Ballard’s personal life during the first few months of 1967: he had met Dr. Christopher Evans, a scientist working at the National Physical Laboratory, which was located a short distance away from the Ballard family home in Shepperton. Evans, who would suffer an early death from cancer in 1979, quickly became Ballard’s closest friend: they were almost exactly the same age, they both had a scientific background, and they had both been enthusiastic about science fiction but become dissatisfied at its lack of ambition and imagination.18 However, there may well have been a reason for their friendship which went beyond shared personal traits. One of Evans’ strongest attributes, according to his professional colleague Edward Newman, was helping to clarify the thoughts of others:
Chris Evans was a gifted communicator, having a combination of abilities in this field that amounted to genius. He could make clear, and interesting to virtually anyone, any concept, idea or fact that he knew about. ... He was particularly good at digging the essence out of obscurely and badly presented material. He augmented understanding so obtained by meeting and carefully questioning the originators of the material.19
Perhaps what a writer needs is not so much the company of other creative people – which can lead to a clash of egos and ideas, rather than a beneficial cross-
One early result of their friendship was an idea for a play at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (‘ICA’) which would feature a reconstruction of a car crash, with narration by Evans and dummy figures produced by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, another recent acquaintance of Ballard’s. The play was heralded in advance during May 1968 by a Sunday Mirror article, which described how Evans and Ballard had ‘spent many months exploring the “hidden meaning” of car accidents for their dramatic presentation ... They studied the behaviour of car crash spectators, read car sales promotion literature and safety propaganda.’21 Given Edward Newman’s comment about Evans’ ability to dig out the essence of obscure material, and his careful questioning of the claims of its originators, it may well be that Evans was the driving force behind this ‘research’ into the hidden meaning of the automobile. He even demonstrated his thoroughness by taking a part-
Ballard and Evans in the Sunday Mirror article describing their proposed play for the ICA -
There is no evidence that this proposed theatrical production ever took place,23 although Ballard did write an eight page outline for the ICA. This document provides us with an interesting perspective on his early thoughts about the automobile, outside of the context of The Atrocity Exhibition. The play takes place against a backdrop of film footage of the automobile in all its guises. On stage are a crashed car, plus a family consisting of a young man, his fiancée, and mother and father, together with an actor who plays the roles of car salesman, auto-
What the play portrays is not the desire for self-
A major obsession
The car crash would feature strongly in two of the ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ sections published in 1968, as Ballard now worked away at what had evidently become a major obsession. The notorious ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, another of the pseudo-
[T]he injuries seem to have been sustained in an optimised auto-
The similarities between ‘The University of Death’ and Crash go further. The main protagonist, Talbot, stages a fatal crash featuring himself and his lover – who poses as Jackie Kennedy – in like manner to Vaughan’s plan for a death crash with Elizabeth Taylor. One of Talbot’s students, Koester, puts on an exhibition of crashed cars and publishes a magazine, ‘Crash!’, featuring the corpses of Mansfield, Camus and Dean. As the character Dr. Nathan recognises, by involving himself and his preoccupations in his students’ projects, Talbot is in fact exploiting the students – just as when Vaughan seeks out and involves himself with the other characters in Crash, he is actually using them as experimental subjects in order to strengthen his own obsessions.25
The squalor of the environment of the automobile also makes its presence felt. Talbot wanders around under crumbling motorway architecture: the exposed metal is rusting, plants sprout from the gaps in the concrete, and tyres, fuel drums and the shells of abandoned cars lie all around him. Koester sleeps with Karen Novotny in an old, rusty vehicle which the students have nicknamed ‘Dodge 38’, littering the rear seat with empty beer bottles and contraceptives; when the car is jolted, he falls across Karen – thereby mimicking Kienholz’s sculpture.
‘The University of Death’ explicitly understands the car-
I remember thinking: ‘He’s got it wrong. Godard’s got it wrong. He sees the car as the symbol of American capitalism, and the car crash as one of the wounds inflicted by capitalism on the docile purchasers of motor cars ... He’s missed the point. He doesn’t see that the car is, in fact, a powerful force for good in its perverse way. And even the car crash can be conceived of – in imaginative terms – as a powerful link in the nexus of sex, love, eroticism and death that lies at the basis of our own sexual imagination.’26
The following year, 1969, saw the publication of the final three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition, including ‘Crash!’, the last of the pseudo-
[I]t 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. A dominant element in this reality is technology and its instruments, the machine. In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture – telephone exchanges, engineering hardware, etc. The 20th century 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. In particular the automobile crash contains a crucial image of the machine as conceptualized psychopathology.
As Ballard told one interviewer a few years later, ‘I’m not interested in cars themselves. It’s technology that interests me’.27
‘Crash!’ In the ICA Eventsheet for February 1969
But perhaps the most revealing aspect of ‘Crash!’ lies is the phrases that separate the individual paragraphs: taken together, they read: ‘Each afternoon in the deserted cinema Tallis found himself increasingly disturbed by the images of colliding motor-
Those same sentences from ‘Crash!’ would also appear in the final piece written for The Atrocity Exhibition – ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’, published in September 1969. In ‘Tolerances’, the wife of the protagonist, now named Travers, has indeed died, but he finds that revisiting the scene of her fatal car accident – in a section which is appropriately titled ‘The Death of Affect’ – no longer has any meaning for him. Travers therefore attempts to come to terms with the loss of his wife in a number of alternative ways, such as recapitulating her death in terms of imaginary perversions with a young woman, Karen Novotny, and re-
‘Tolerances’ contains other aspects that would feature in the novel on which Ballard would soon begin work. The notion of ‘watching and recording’ is prevalent throughout – a film crew in a helicopter follows Travers around, attempting to record his every move, and Travers himself pays students to watch him in intercourse with Karen Novotny. The thuggish character Vaughan, who will appear as the ‘hoodlum scientist’ in Crash, makes a first appearance: he and Travers drive around the highways and visit multi-
Subsequently, Ballard would give the impression that having completed The Atrocity Exhibition he did not start work on Crash until after his exhibition of crashed cars at London’s New Arts Lab in April 1970. That exhibition was, Ballard claimed, a test of his intuitions before he started work on his novel:
I was ... interested in using the exhibition to test certain feelings I had about the real role that cars, and crashed cars in particular, play in our lives, and the way they affect our imaginations. And a lot of my suspicions were amply confirmed by the show. In fact I learned from the exhibition a great deal that I then put into Crash, which I began to write soon afterwards. (Ballard interviewed on BBC Radio 3, June 1973)
However, he had actually begun writing Crash the preceding December, and had completed 20,000 words by the end of January. It was, he told a correspondent, ‘coming along strongly but uncertainly’.28 The editorial in the February 1970 issue of New Worlds confirmed that Ballard had already started his next novel, and that it would be conventional in form – unlike the condensed novels of The Atrocity Exhibition. However, that same issue of New Worlds did contain a new story from Ballard in ‘condensed’ form, one that explored similar areas to Crash. This was ‘Journey Across a Crater’, which was never included in any of Ballard’s short story collections and was deliberately omitted from both The Complete Short Stories and the expanded edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard, it seems, had subsequently taken a dislike to the story, telling those who asked that he did not believe that it worked. Certainly, ‘Journey Across a Crater’ does give the impression of being two different stories that have been rather inelegantly stitched together. It features an unnamed protagonist who is, or believes he is, an astronaut who has had some form of mishap in space and is attempting to rectify its disorientating effects upon his perception of the world around him. Then about half-
‘Journey Across a Crater’ is included in the forthcoming special edition of Crash – but it certainly dissatisfied Ballard, perhaps because he felt that he had not managed to get it to work as a coherent whole. Or maybe, after killing off Karen Novotny (several times), Nurse Nagamatzu and Margaret Trabert in The Atrocity Exhibition, he thought that brutally ending the life of yet another young woman was a death too far.
New Worlds #198 included the condensed novel ‘Journey Across a Crater’; cover photo by Roy Cornwall
In any event, ‘Journey Across a Crater’ does help answer the question as to why Crash reverted to a linear narrative after all the claims that Ballard had made for his condensed novels.30 The story does little to suggest that the non-
In other words, as an author you make the story believable by excluding other logics – which is precisely what Crash does. Ballard found that he himself had to embrace this stance whilst writing the novel: ‘I had to will myself into this deliberate psychotic state, suspending all values and embracing the nightmare logic that the book sets out’.32 We might view this as the ultimate in research, several steps further than Christopher Evans taking a job as a car salesman:
In writing books like Crash ... I was exploring myself, using myself as the laboratory animal, as it were, probing around. I had to take the top off my skull when I was writing Crash and start touching pain and pleasure centers to see what happened.33
Ballard would wander around car breakers yards, photographing the crashed vehicles,34 and devour the descriptions of accidents and fatalities in the book Crash Injuries, all so as to investigate his own reactions as to what he was viewing and to prepare himself mentally for writing his book. We might think of his exhibition of crashed cars as serving the same purpose. Ballard often said that he was testing the responses of the audience to the wrecked vehicles, but recollections of other attendees at the opening night do not substantiate his claims of wild and aggressive behaviour – some drunken fooling around at most. However, the fictional account by ‘Jim’ of his own exhibition in The Kindness of Women may contain a germ of the truth: ‘I still assumed that the exhibition had been designed to test the psychology of its audience, but [my friend] David took for granted that its sole purpose had been to incite myself.’
First edition of Crash, published by Cape in 1973; cover by Bill Botten
For examples of writing that described self-
The landscapes [of Burroughs’ novels] are those of the exurban man-
In the case of Genet, Ballard was quite explicit about the influence on his own novel:
I like Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. That is a masterpiece. His obsessions lie absolutely naked on the stage, offered like a body. He inspires me a great deal in Crash, particularly [in] the first pages. When I was writing Crash I wanted to reach that sort of intensity.37
Our Lady of the Flowers provides not just the intensity of a self-
But if Ballard was aiming for an ‘outsider’ novel, he was at a distinct disadvantage compared to Burroughs and Genet: they were writing as outsiders from their own experiences – as thief, as junky, as homosexual. Hence Ballard’s attempt to get inside his own novel: by provoking and testing his reactions to the material, by setting the story near his own home in Shepperton, and by writing in the first person as ‘James Ballard’. Other characters in the book also had personal roots. Ballard would freely acknowledge that his close friend Christopher Evans was the prototype for Vaughan, the hoodlum scientist.38 Catherine Ballard, the wife of the novel’s narrator, was based upon his own girlfriend, Claire Walsh. Indeed, he later told Jean-
Ballard seemed in little doubt that the extra psychological investment that he had made in writing Crash had paid off. When asked twenty years later what he considered to be his best work, he replied ‘My most original and probably best novel is Crash. This is probably where I pushed my imagination as far as it has gone.’41 The new edition from Fourth Estate gives us a welcome opportunity to look again at this startling work of the creative imagination in the context in which it was written.
Acknowledgements. The idea for this article occurred when I saw a reproduction of Christopher Logue’s poster-
1 Faxed letter from Ballard to Robert Louit dated 16 November 2004, available at the British Library, ref. Add MS 88938/4/2.
5 There are also references to celebrity car crashes in ‘Venus Smiles’ (1957) and ‘The Singing Statues’ (1962), but these were added to the stories when Ballard revised them during the late-
8 Some descriptions of Logue’s poster give a date of 1970 rather than 1966. However, the 1968 article ‘The Men Behind the Poster Boom’ specifically refers to the poster, so a date of 1970 is clearly too late (see see http://sweetjanespopboutique.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-
9 Michael Moorcock, Ballard’s friend and editor of New Worlds, may have known Logue at this point. Certainly, he knew him a year or two later, as he related in a recent interview: ‘At a [New Worlds] party you would find Arthur C. Clarke deep in conversation with William Burroughs, ... the poet Christopher Logue talking to our science editor Christopher Evans etc. etc.’ (http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2014/01/interview-
10 Another possible reason for the delay in the story’s appearance is that New Worlds was experiencing publication and financial difficulties. At one point it seemed as if the magazine must close, and no issues appeared for February, May or June 1967.
11 In appropriating the Apollo 1 deaths for his story, Ballard may also have had in mind the similarities between the tightly enclosed space of the Apollo Command Module and the interior of a small British car. Did he perhaps see a photograph of the capsule after the fire and imagine that the charred, reclining bodies in their capsule must have somehow resembled crash victims? Indeed, at one point in ‘The Death Module’ space capsules and cars are explicitly considered together: ‘Since their meeting at the emergency conference on Space Medicine he had done nothing but shuffle the photographs of wrecked capsules and automobiles, searching for one face among the mutilated victims’ (emphasis added).
12 See the review of Crash by ‘Magellan’, and subsequent discussion with David Pringle, at https://www.amazon.com/review/R2391IMJWXHOYG
14 For example, Roger Luckhurst suggests that ‘Vaughan becomes a literal embodiment of what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called the “death-
23 The idea for a play may have been the suggestion of Michael Kustow – who early in 1968 had been appointed Director of the ICA, at the age of just 28, in order to supply new impetus to the arts organisation. One of Kustow’s aims was to provide ‘scientific theatre, reflecting our technological environment, expressed in exhibitions using multimedia equipment – films, tapes and live performances – to get across, or explore, the relationship today between man and the machine’ (Michael Kustow, quoted by Stephen K. Oberbeck in ‘Massage Parlors for Jaded Senses’, available at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/massage-
29 For a more detailed discussion of ‘Journey Across a Crater’, see Mike Holliday, ‘Disaster in Space: J.G. Ballard’s “Journey Across a Crater”’, http://www.holli.co.uk/crater.htm.
30 In the February 1970 issue of New Worlds, Ballard was quoted as saying that he intended to carry on writing in the condensed form ‘for many years to come’. In fact, he dropped it almost entirely after ‘Journey Across a Crater’.
34 Ballard interview with Catherine Bresson in Métaphores (1983). Charles Platt recollects that in the late-
36 ‘Myth Maker of the 20th Century’, New Worlds #142, May/June 1964. Ballard was, however, quick to dismiss any stylistic influence of Burroughs on his own writing; see, for example, the interviews with Jannick Storm (1968) and Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber (1982) included in Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-
37 Ballard interview with Catherine Bresson in Métaphores (1983). It seems that Robert Louit, who was translator for the French edition of Crash, found it difficult to believe that Our Lady of the Flowers had influenced Ballard’s novel, a view endorsed by his fellow French Ballard-
38 To those who knew him, Evans would have been easily recognisable from the descriptions of Vaughan in the novel: a ‘one-
39 Ballard interview in Disturb e-
41 Ballard interview with Marcus Moure (1995), republished at http://www.spikemagazine.com/0901ballard.php.