Crash: The Wreck of the Century

<em>Crash: </em>The Wreck of the Century

The brochure for the 1961 Lincoln Continental line makes the six-seater luxury sedans look almost dainty. They come in pretty pastels: a cream called Sultana White, a fizzy yellow known as Sunburst, an ice-cream-parlor blue-green dubbed Turquoise Mist. A gloved female finger toggles the power-window switch—almost every picture has an immaculately accessorized woman in it, usually as part of a couple, sometimes posing with an equally well-groomed dog. It is hard to believe that this make and model, modified and in Presidential Black, will soon accrue a somber notoriety for the bit part it will play in the Kennedy assassination. Or that, a decade later and because of that grim pedigree, British writer J. G. Ballard will assign a ’61 Continental to be the automotive alter ego of Vaughan, the Conradian madman and car-wreck fetishist at the heart, or the place where the heart should be, of his 1973 neurasthenic nightmare of a novel, Crash.

Described as a “crazed, morbid roundelay of dismemberment and sexual perversion” in its New York Times review—and, to be clear, the reviewer regarded that as a bad thing—the novel’s reception prefigured that of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation twenty-three years later. Ballard apparently had his manuscript returned to him with a note from a publisher’s reader still attached, advising against the book’s publication and asserting—much to the author’s wry delight—that he was “beyond psychiatric help.” Later, the Daily Mail would launch a crusade to get Cronenberg’s film banned in the United Kingdom, succeeding only in one London borough—Westminster—whose denizens had to make the arduous trek to neighboring Camden to see it in a cinema. And this mixed-message moral panic came after the competition judges of the Cannes Film Festival had already awarded the film a Special Jury Prize—from which disapproving jury president Francis Ford Coppola pointedly distanced himself.

“No one has a life story, a past, or a single recognizable emotional response. No one has much of anything, really, except for an insatiable, mechanical libido and a car.”

“What Cronenberg did with Ballard’s novel was to strip out the upholstery, the walnut finish, the chrome detailing.”

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