I fully expected to dislike this book going in. A book about people being aroused by and obsessing over deadly car crashes set my dispositions strongly against this novel. So I picked up the book and waited for the rage... it never arrived. It took me a while to figure out why I was enjoying reading Crash so much.
I think, at it's heart, Crash is about human connection, particularly human connection in a world where isolation and distance is the norm. The first passage that comes close to this expression happens right after the James' crash with Helen.
"During my first hours in Ashford Hospital all I could see in my mind was the image of us locked together face to face in these two cars, the body of her dying husband lying between us on the bonnet of my car. We looked at each other through the fractured windshields, neither able to move... as if unsure what had brought us together." (Ballard 20)
It is from this painful experience that any significant human interaction arises. James' affair with Helen and the revival of James' relationship with his wife Catharine both originate from this event. In the imagery of the crashes and in the vivid perversity of sexual acts and desire one feature that is pervasive is the act of joining. We can debate about weather or not this is healthy interaction latter. I think the important aspect of this is that human connection is preferable, in whatever form it comes in, to a sterile world where each individual is isolated from others.
"Now, what isolation?" You may ask. Excellent question. The answer, I think, is somewhat more subtle and subdued than the vivid and erotic collisions of cars and flesh and is therefore less noticeable. Distance is one aspect of this isolation. There are many scenes (pick your favorite) where James observes people or cars or buildings from an impersonal distance. Vaughan uses his telephoto lenses to photograph Elizabeth Taylor. Each person is in their own capsule and is insulated from others. The people in the other cars become scenery that you navigate but have no real relationship with. The crash breaks through this isolation. The crash creates a brief but intense moment where you and the life of another person are directly and irrevocably joined. Those who live are changed and carry the scars both physical and mental with them all their lives. There is an intense, intimate, and sadistic power in a crash.
But why the perversity? Could the same point not have been made with a heartwarming story of James and Catharine befriending Helen and coming to forgive and love one another? The answer, I think, has something to do with how a crash is a twisting of social order. In the cold impersonal routine of modern life each person passes hundreds if not thousands of people without ever forming a connection. This is the structure of daily life. A crash breaks this order, distorts the structure that the society relies upon. This disruption is perverse, a violation of the social norm. To convey this contrast, the human interaction that results from the crashes, and the crashes themselves, are put in terms that both express the perversity and the intimacy so that we can understand just how wrong this situation is. If anything, isolation should be perverse and intimacy revered.
I hope this makes some sense to everyone. I'm still trying to understand my own position.