The opening of Crash in slow motion

Chris Beckett provides a close reading of the manuscript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, focussing on the novel's opening pages.

In ‘Memories of Greeneland’ (1978), J G Ballard wrote that he had been ‘enormously influenced by [Graham] Greene's style, by his method of setting out the psychological ground on which his narratives rest. Within the first paragraph of a Graham Greene novel one has an unmistakable feeling for the imaginative and psychological shape of what is to come.’ Consider, then, the uncanny image of Dr Laing on his balcony at the beginning of High-Rise, squatting ‘beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hind-quarter of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.’ We are familiar with the individual elements that compose the picture – balcony, fire, telephone directories, eating, Alsatian dog – but we are unfamiliar with their combination, their manner of linkage, and we look to the impending narrative to decode what is going on. The more words we read – the larger the sample – the easier it should be to crack the narrative code. Or consider Paul Sinclair's paradoxical insight on first meeting the ‘amiable Prospero’ Dr Wilder Penrose at the beginning of Super-Cannes: ‘Only when I learned to admire this flawed and dangerous man was I able to think of killing him.’ The twists and turns of the story that follows will gradually unpack this psychopathic conundrum, chapter by chapter. These two very brief examples from Ballard's fiction intimate in their different ways – by vivid tableau, by knot of words – the ‘psychological shape’ of the respective narratives that follow. They open the door, as the first words of any fiction must, to the elaboration of meaning. And Crash, it seems to me, also bears out the influence of Greene's first-paragraph psychological imperative.

Crash in draft

Crash is a densely written and carefully constructed novel that rewards close reading. Among Ballard's papers at the British Library there is an invaluable textual tool that can help us to slow the pace of our reading: an undated [1970–71] typed draft in 301 folios, comprehensively revised by hand in different inks, with additional fragments written in the margins and on the backs of the pages (BL Add MS 88938/3/8/1). Visually and textually very busy, the many amendments to the draft allow us to trace the emergence of the final text of Crash in a nuanced way. The document captures the process of composition at just the moment – although it is really a document that records many moments – when the novel began to assume its final form: there is much more that Ballard will do to the text (and there is a subsequent cleaner draft of the novel at the British Library which is closer to the published text), but there is nevertheless much in the earlier draft that will not be changed. The first two pages of the draft (folios 2-3, rectos and versos) are reproduced here, together with some preliminary observations, prompted by the first paragraph of Crash, that hope to show how the draft can help us to read the novel afresh, lingering over familiar passages that we might have accelerated past, and stopping at unaccustomed lay-bys.

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Page titled Chapter 1 from the typescript draft of Crash, with many annotations, crossings out and notes in J G Ballard's hand

Opening paragraphs from a draft of Crash, heavily revised by Ballard in blue and red ink, c. 1970–71.

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Usage terms Typescript draft of Crash, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited.

‘The most sinister casualty of the century: the death of affect’

Crash begins (‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash’) with what I take to be an allusion to the first two sentences of Albert Camus's L'Étranger: ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas’ [‘Maman died yesterday. Or maybe yesterday, I’m not sure’]. Together with James Dean and Jayne Mansfield, Camus is a member of the post-mortem ‘pantheon’ of celebrity car-crash victims invoked in both The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Ballard's allusion to L’Étranger functions as an opening ground-note sounded in the deep background to Crash, a tonic note of detachment to which every angle and posture and intersection that the book celebrates is attuned. In L'Étranger, Meursault's failure to display affection, his inability to mourn his mother's death (or to be seen to mourn), his sexual relations without warmth, his murderous action without regret (seemingly prompted only by the glare of the sun), and his refusal of the final consolation of religious faith as he faces the guillotine, are all ‘crimes’ of dislocation and estrangement, born of a world that no longer fits together. Camus's sense of alienation in an absurd world emptied of meaning is echoed in Ballard's notion of ‘the death of affect’, a term that first appears in his work in the late 1960s. Ballard's powerful essay on Salavador Dalí, ‘The Innocent as Paranoid’, published in New Worlds in 1969, reads as if it were written in the margins of Crash and glosses many of its themes: ‘Voyeurism, self-disgust, biomorphic horror, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings - these diseases of the psyche which Dalí rightly diagnosed have now culminated in the most sinister casualty of the century: the death of affect.’ The public and the personal bleed into each other in Ballard's porous writing of the late 1960s. One way of thinking of the ‘melancholy conjunction[s]’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash is to consider both books as expressions of perturbed mourning, whether for the author’s wife, Mary, who died suddenly in 1964, or, more figuratively, for ‘the death of affect’, whose first throes of detachment Ballard felt formatively in Shanghai, in a fascinatingly garish and unreal metropolis without pity: ‘Looking back at his wife's death, Travers now reconceived it as a series of conceptual games: (1) a stage show, entitled ‘Crash’’ (The Atrocity Exhibition, 2006, p. 119).

Parodying romantic pulp fiction

There are many things in Crash, but the warmth of human affection is not one of them, notwithstanding the repetitive and fluid pairing between crash survivors (and ‘aspiring whores’) that punctuates, or regulates, the novel. And yet the second sentence of the novel, which sounds simultaneously with and against the opening ground-note of the ‘death of affect’, immediately introduces the notion of friendship: ‘During the course of our friendship [...].’ Crash is, then, the account of a friend, a special friend, and one way in which the novel completes itself is by defining what James Ballard (hereafter, James) means by ‘friendship’. The relationship gives the narration first-hand authority but takes away its objectivity. If we look at the second sentence of the draft, however, we see that ‘friendship’ is not in the typescript: it is the first correction to the typescript. Ballard had originally drafted a much vaguer (if equally ironical) circumlocution: ‘During the time that I had known him [...].’ Here the irony is all in the knowing, in what is meant by knowing Vaughan. Vaughan's shocking and obsessive preoccupations are sketched within the first page, during which we glimpse James as Vaughan's photocopier-bitch, ‘uneasily’ supplying Vaughan with enlargements of his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor – ’magnified details of her knees and hands, of the inner surface of her thighs, and the left apex of her mouth’ – like illicit pornography in plain packaging (‘instalments of a death warrant’). But it is not until the next page (of the published text) that the power relationship between them is directly presented: ‘Searching through the photographs in his apartment, [Vaughan] half turned towards me, so that his heavy groin quietened me with its profile of an almost erect penis. He knew that as long as he provoked me with his own sex, which he used casually as if he might discard it forever at any moment, I would never leave him’.

The sentiment, if not the homo-erotic detail, reads like a tired trope from romantic pulp fiction. What is interesting to observe is that just as ‘friendship’ was a revision to the second sentence of the novel, so these two sentences – which modify what James means by friendship – were also added by hand to the typescript: the first sentence appears in the left margin of the first page and the second sentence is written on the back of the page. If we look closely at the second sentence we see that instead of the phrase ‘I would never leave him’ Ballard had originally written, before crossing it out, an even more pronounced romantic cliché: ‘I would completely devote myself to him’. Parody of the discourse of romantic fiction – Vaughan's ‘studied courtship of injured women’ – is a persistent element in the mix of prose registers in which Crash is written. The extravagant language of sentiment functions as a foil to the distancing flat tones in which much of the narration is delivered, and part of the secret of the novel's enduring power lies in the way in which it leaves the reader to decide, without narrative prompt or collusive wink, when to put the book down, when to laugh, and when to push through.

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Page containing handwritten notes and edits, from typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard

Reverse of f. 2 from a draft of Crash, with Ballard's handwritten edits, c. 1970–71.

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Usage terms Typescript draft of Crash, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited.

‘Psychotic twin’

One of the things that Ballard is doing at this stage of his revision of the beginning of the book is recalibrating his opening presentation of the relationship between Vaughan and James. One key element of the published text that is missing from the draft at the beginning is the information that Vaughan is driving James's (nameless) silver car at the time of his death. The theft of the car, it will be remembered, is the final episode in James's recapitulation of events before his narration returns to the opening scene of the novel. The circular structure of the novel – the narrative is an elegiac, post acid-trip analepsis – prepares the reader's return to the opening scene in the final chapter. However, although the car is stolen towards the end of the draft (in fact, under different circumstances to those narrated in the published text), the theft is not mentioned at the beginning of the draft.

There is, instead, the emblematic hint of a Lincoln car (and a passing allusion to another Surrealist, Frida Kahlo) in ‘the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion’ that pierces Elizabeth Taylor's uterus in the description of Vaughan’s ‘vision’ of their death together, although the hint only appears in the published text and in the more general context of Vaughan's pre-crash ‘vision’ rather than his fatal crash itself. It is not until much later that the hint is confirmed: when Vaughan is not driving a car he has stolen, he drives ‘a ten-year-old model of a Lincoln Continental, the same make of vehicle as the open limousine in which President Kennedy had died’.

The draft tells a different story. At the bottom of the first page, Ballard typed: ‘Yesterday, however, he drove from the multi-storey car-park half out of his mind, hurling the car past me like some ugly machine sprung from a trap.’ This is then revised by hand as (italic added): ‘Yesterday, he hurled his car from [past me] the multi-storey car-park of the airport [...]’. The revision personalises the vehicle, revising ‘the car’ to ‘his car’ (and not ‘my car’, i.e. James's car). The published text includes an important sentence that alerts us to whose car Vaughan is driving when he dies, but the sentence does not appear in the draft. We are told (and note as well the time shift from ‘yesterday’): ‘Ten days ago, as he stole my car from the garage of my apartment house, Vaughan hurtled up the concrete ramp, an ugly machine sprung from a trap.’ The published text retains from the draft ‘an ugly machine sprung from a trap’ and revises ‘hurling’ and ‘hurled’ to the cognate ‘hurtled.’ It would appear that the course of Ballard's revision followed the circularity of the novel: he did not incorporate the information (from the end of the penultimate chapter) that Vaughan is driving James's car until he swept through again from the beginning in preparing a subsequent draft. Significantly, also absent from the draft (of the final chapter) is James's creeping psychological insight: ‘Increasingly I was convinced that Vaughan was a projection of my own fantasies and obsessions [...]’. James's insight is given symbolic substance by the theft: identifying the car before they can identify the body, the police initially think it is James who has died. To borrow an apposite term from Ballard's next novel, Concrete Island, we might say that James begins to see Vaughan, in the text's final formulation, as his ‘psychotic twin’.

‘Under the revolving ambulance lights’

I began by citing two examples of a typical Ballard opening: the first, the presentation of a striking and unsettling scene yet to be decoded; the second, a knot of words that is gradually untied during the course of the ensuing narrative. Crash combines both approaches in its first paragraph.

The first two sentences of Crash proceed by a series of semantic trips, sudden switches of meaning that subvert reader-expectation: ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident.’ His last car crash? How many accidents did he have? But we quickly come to realise that this is the wrong question to ask. Crash elaborates, in captivated retrospection, a world in which the terms ‘accident’ and ‘crash’ are not synonymous: in this world, crashes are deliberate actions, rehearsed actions – performances – and ‘true’ accidents, like Vaughan's, are crashes that go wrong. ‘Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress’, Vaughan's car (James's car) misses its target. The sentence is formulated unexpectedly: the car is the subject rather than Vaughan, and Vaughan is ‘driven’ in more ways than one. Visually, the first paragraph builds towards the culminating image of Elizabeth Taylor, steadying herself on the arm of her chauffeur, standing ‘under the revolving ambulance lights’. She raises a gloved hand to her throat as she takes in the horrific crash scene, with James, centre-stage, kneeling over Vaughan's body.

This complex image is the climax of the opening paragraph. It is also the book's narrative hinge, the (frozen) point in time from which James looks back to look forward. The changes that Ballard makes to the first paragraph of the draft are not many – they are largely a re-distribution of existing elements – but their combined impact is considerable. Beyond the revision of the second sentence (adding ‘friendship’), the most important textual change is the softening modification of Vaughan's ‘dream’ of ‘killing’ Elizabeth Taylor – a formulation surely too abrupt and too conventionally murderous – to a more consensual and passive dream of dying with her (‘with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months’). The revision better conforms to James's assessment of Vaughan's morbid reverie as ‘the erotic tenderness of a long-separated lover’, and allows a conceit of mutuality to be developed. Vaughan's desire to kill Taylor is removed from the third sentence of the typescript and inserted, after revision, in the penultimate sentence of the paragraph as a passing sub-clause following the description of Taylor steadying herself on her chauffeur's arm. James is now the only figure missing from the inaugural scene. In the draft, James forces himself through the ‘police engineers’ but he is left in an undefined position as a mere observer, like an extra who has arrived late on set. In a subsequent revision (not recorded in the draft under discussion), James joins Taylor and Vaughan, in what becomes the concluding sentence of the paragraph, as an equal subject in the tableau: ‘As I knelt over Vaughan's body, she placed a gloved hand to her throat.’

Ballard's final decision regarding the opening of the novel is to conclude the first paragraph with this sentence, moving the sentence that follows, suitably revised, to commence the second paragraph. ‘Was she aware of the death Vaughan had planned for her’ (in the draft) eventually becomes: ‘Could she see, in Vaughan's posture, the formula of the death which he had devised for her?’ The remade sentence introduces two key terms from the novel's favoured lexicon – ’posture’ and ‘formula’ – and launches the sense of a world encrypted that is central to the discourse of the novel. Repositioned, the sentence initiates the second paragraph, in which grainy images of fragmented parts of Taylor's body – isolated by Vaughan's zoom lens, magnified by photocopier to the edge of recognition – are seen displayed like a stalker's target on the walls of Vaughan's apartment.

The net result of the first paragraph revision is a heightened presentation of the key opening scene in which the three principal performers of the retrospective drama now share centre-stage. The theatricality of the scene is made explicit in the final chapter: ‘Lit by the arc-lights below, the deck of the flyover formed a proscenium arch visible for miles above the surrounding traffic. Across the deserted side-streets and pedestrian precincts, the concourses of the silent airport, the spectators moved towards this huge stage, drawn there by the logic and beauty of Vaughan's death.’

The Passion of Vaughan

The staged character of the scene has a quasi-religious iconographic quality, as if it were the Passion of Vaughan: it establishes, to return to Ballard on Greene, ‘the imaginative and psychological shape of what is to come’. I am reminded of Ballard's remarks, in Miracles of Life, on Crivelli's Annunciation at the National Gallery in which he recruits the Renaissance artist to the ranks of the Surrealists, pleased to invent his own ‘master narrative’ from the seemingly disparate elements of Crivelli's painting. As Vaughan dies, the evening sky darkens to blood-red, colour of the Passion, a colour taken up in the description of the sacrificial victims of the scene: the ‘crushed bodies of the package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun’. It is a scene of stylised gesture and posture, an allegorical scene in search of a contemporary master narrative. James kneels before Vaughan, as if he were a figure of redemption, and the raising of Taylor's gloved hand is a mysterious semaphore ushering in every mute sign and signal in the pages that follow, a choreographed motion of the hand beneath a pulsating halo-like circle of emergency lights. ‘In the post-Warhol era’, said Dr Nathan (The Atrocity Exhibition, p. 33), ‘a single gesture such as uncrossing one's legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace. In twentieth century terms the crucifixion, for example, would be re-enacted as a conceptual auto-disaster’.

Why does Elizabeth Taylor raise a hand to her throat? The instinctive yet elegant movement of her hand in response to the horror she witnesses might be one of many practised gestures born of a lifetime in front of the camera: when the narrative returns upon itself in the final chapter, she is described as ‘shielding herself from the image of the death she had so narrowly avoided’ (my emphasis). But it is worth considering whether Ballard is not also alluding to a particular near-fatal episode in Taylor's life – an episode more current when Crash was first published than it is today – and is perhaps thereby also signalling something about the novel. In March 1961, the newspapers were full of the news of Taylor's imminent death, and news of her dramatic recovery. During the first phase of the filming of Cleopatra, at Pinewood Studios, Taylor developed a fever, then pneumonia. Her breathing became very difficult and her condition critical, and on the night of 4 March an emergency tracheotomy was performed. The scar from the operation is clearly visible in Cleopatra. If it is not covered by her costume, by her hair, or by an elaborate necklace, it can also be readily seen in press and publicity photographs of the period and beyond, including the front covers of Life, for 28 April and 6 October 1961. When, in 1969, the so-called Taylor-Burton diamond was made into a widely-publicised bespoke necklace, it was designed so that it would conceal Taylor's tracheotomy scar. In The Atrocity Exhibition (p. 12), Travis ‘tends the dying film star, eroticizing her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated verandas of the London Hilton’.

When Elizabeth Taylor raises a hand to her throat at the scene of Vaughan's death – a scene of many wounds – she is instinctively touching, in a gesture that fuses the fictional and the real, an old and very public wound. In doing so, the gloved hand seems to sign the matter of the novel: trauma and its aftermath.


© Chris Beckett. First published in Rick McGrath (ed.), Deep Ends: The J. G. Ballard Anthology 2015 (The Terminal Press, Toronto).

  • Chris Beckett
  • Chris Beckett is an archivist at the British Library. Since cataloguing J. G. Ballard’s papers in 2010/11, he has published several articles about the archive. He is currently preparing a new edition of Crash, incorporating selected draft material, to be published March 2017.