September 18, 2011

My favourites: Crash by J.G. Ballard

A long time ago I had a plan that I'd do a bunch of reviews of my all-time favourite books whenever I didn't have anything else to write about. Which is pretty much code for "whenever I'm really struggling to get through the book I'm reading." Which is what's happening now. For whatever reason, Drood just ain't really doing it for me, but more on that in another post or two. For now, let's talk Ballard.

Pretty much any time I read anything by J.G. Ballard, the main thing that strikes me is how unique his imagination is. If his novels and stories are any guide, he seems to think differently to every other member of the human race. I really believe that nobody else on earth would have been able to write the fictions that Ballard did ... and I find the experience of reading them thrilling, exhilerating, exhausting, and completely fucking mind-exploding. His Complete Short Stories, more than 1,000 pages long and covering more than forty years of writing, is like my own personal bible.

(His best known work, the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, is by far the most 'normal' thing of his I've ever read, and stands out like a sore thumb within his body of work. Having read it for Year 11 English when I was at school, when I stumbled on Crash a few years later it actually took me a while to realise that they were written by the same guy.) 

Crash is narrated by a television producer named Ballard, and the book opens with a brief moment of violence as Ballard's car runs out of control and he spears into an oncoming sedan. Immobilised by crushed metal, Ballard is forced to look at the scene that confronts him, that he has caused. The other car carried two people: the male driver is dead, his body lying shattered on Ballard's own hood; the female passenger, Helen Rimington, is beautiful and barely injured. The frankness of her gaze as they wait, locked together, for rescue workers to cut them loose, reminds Ballard of the intimacy of sex. From that moment, sex, death and traffic collisions become linked in his mind.

Once in hospital, Ballard is discovered by Vaughan, a paranoid TV-scientist who is obsessed with the sexual possibilities of car accidents and is gathering together a group of crash survivors who feel the same. Together they fiercely explore their bizarre hope for an intersection of concrete, glass, steel, blood and semen. They plan accidents, then carry them out. They sneak into wrecker's yards to fuck in the twisted, mis-shapen seats of smashed cars. Ballard tracks down Helen Rimington and involves her in the group, opening up her scars and treating them like a vagina. Vaughan plans the perfect accident, in which he hopes to kill himself and Elizabeth Taylor (who's shooting a movie at a nearby studio).

Just in case my little summary hasn't given the game away, I'm gonna come out and say it: Crash is fucking fucked up. Essentially it's about the fusion of humanity and technology, which is a fairly common science-fiction trope (Ballard began as a pure sci-fi writer, before evolving into something much deeper, and stranger). The genius of Crash, though, is twofold: Ballard brings this idea out of the realm of the fantastical and sets it in the real world and, having done that, he makes it perfectly literal. The metaphor at work in Crash is infinitely more powerful than any of its sci-fi equivalents because it's so grounded in reality, yet at the same time so alien. Vaughan actually wants to mate with his car, to integrate the most perfect technology of his time into his own body. In the novel this involves being pierced by steering columns and leaking blood and semen onto dashboards; in the forty-odd years since Crash was published it has involved the invention of computers, walkmans, the internet and iPhones, and the subordination of our daily lives to increasingly elaborate technologies.

When thinking about this book it's hard not to picture that guy on the tram chatting into the glowing blue headset-phone-thingy and freak out a bit about how on the money Ballard was all along. I mean, fuck, I'm blogging right now.

The writing in Crash is deliberately quite cold and mechanical, Ballard describing acts of savage sexual violence with repetitive language more suited to a technical manual. I know a number of people who find it nigh-on unreadable. (It actually has a hell of a lot in common with another of my favourite books, American Psycho --- the same collision of sex and violence, and a similar bludgeoning repetitive style. What does it say about me that I love them both? Probably nothing good ...)

If you're able to lock into its tone and read it on its own terms, I believe Crash has as much to tell you about humankind in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as any piece of art I've ever come across. I honestly can't think of any higher praise than that --- it's a remarkable book.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Drood by Dan Simmons
books to go: 97

September 7, 2011

The Moonstone (#98)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

What I said then:

A classic Victorian novel ... but I hate Victorian novels. Most of them, anyway.

What I say now:

Yikes, I actually finished this nearly a week ago, but with the packing/moving/unpacking/"hey-where-did-I-put-that-really-important-thingy?" madness that's been going on in my life, I haven't had a chance to sit down and yarn about it. (I live in Port Melbourne now, in a rather lovely Edwardian terrace house, and my books have made the journey safely. I was tempted to 'lose' one or two of the things I'm most dreading having to read --- *cough* D.H. Lawrence *cough* --- but it would've felt too much like cheating.)

So: The Moonstone. No less an authority than T.S. Eliot described it as 'the first, the longest, and the best of all English detective novels' ... though, is a modernist poet really an authority on thrillers? In brief, a dying scoundrel bequeathes his niece, Miss Rachel Verinder, a ransacked Indian jewel on her eighteenth birthday, which goes missing that very night. Among the suspects are her two suitors, a reformed thief now working in the house as a servant, and three mysterious Indians who turned up in the town just as the stone did.

Collins tells the story in a succession of first-person narratives as several different people describe their relation to the jewel and the hunt for it, and the shifting points-of-view are probably the greatest strength of the book. Each narrator has a distinctive voice, which Collins nails, but even more than that, each has a distinctive take on the crime, on life, and on the other people involved. Facts us readers thought we could rely on are subsequently thrown into doubt, and the initial portrayals of certain characters are shown to be wildly inaccurate. The way Collins uses his multiple narrators to toy with our perceptions is brilliant sleight-of-hand, and has been much copied since (I'm sure it was done before Collins, too ... if you're better read than me and know by whom, leave me a note in the comments).

The case of the lost jewel is intriguing, but Collins goes one better by successfully linking the search for the truth about the theft with the search for the truth about Miss Verinder's love-life. The book ends up being as much about her attempts to find happiness as it is about any ginormous diamond, and is all the better for it. While being utterly central to the plot, she is not one of our narrators, so her actions --- both to do with the lost diamond and her two suitors --- are left unexplained until the last moments of the novel.

If there's one weakness, it's the ending. In order to fit everything together, Collins resorts to a device which, to a modern reader, comes across as slightly fantastical. After the rigorous realism of the first three quarters of the book, it felt like a let-down to me, and even a bit of a cheat. Which, seeings as this is a mystery novel, should probably kind of ruin it. I had so much fun up to that point though (the first narrator, a cantankerous old servant who's obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, is hilarious), that I'm willing to forgive.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Drood by Dan Simmons (which is narrated by none other than a fictionalised Wilkie Collins. Coincidence? I think not!)
books to go: 97