Wednesday, November 7, 2012

working at the car wash

"The gantry retreated to its start position.  The machine switched itself out of circuit.  The rollers hung limply in front of the clear glass of the windshield.  The last of the detergent-stained water ran through the darkness to the drainage vents.  Sucking at the air through his scarred lips, Vaughan lay back exhausted, staring at Catherine with confused eyes...I wanted to reach out and care for them, helping them into their next sexual act...celebrating in this sexual act the marriage of their bodies with this benign technology." (162)

The entire car wash scene, which occurs for many pages, is one of the most striking scenes to me in Crash.  It is in this scene where the reader truly understands that the characters have unconventional emotional attachments to sex.  Granted, becoming aroused by car crashes is far from conventional, my focus here is more on James and Catherine and their sex and emotional lives.  From the start, we (and they) know that each of them has had affairs, making their relationship abnormal to begin with.  This scene in the car wash is significantly deviant from societal norms - James watches his wife have violent sex with another man.  Why?  James seems to be fascinated by their sex acts because the positions Vaughan puts Catherine in relate to the crash victims, but James is also fascinated with Vaughan's body that has been marked by many car crashes.
It appears though, that the most important relationship in during this car wash is not Catherine and Vaughan, nor James watching Catherine and Vaughan, but the sex act in conjunction with the large mechanized car wash as well as the reenactment of the crash victims positions.  This connection of sex and technology can be seen in the sexual language mixed in with descriptions of the heavy carwash machinery.  Phrases such as "retreated to its start position," "out of circuit," "hung limply," "detergent-stained water ran through the darkness," connect machinery with Catherine and Vaughan having sex.  James is so mesmerized by their connection to technology that he continues inserting coins to make the car wash keep going.
Sex is still an emotional event, but it is no longer a shared emotional event between two people.  While two people are still needed, there is no emotional connection between them.  The connection occurs between each person and a car, which represents technology.  It is through these fascinations that each character becomes more embedded in themselves, constantly seeking ways to improve their sexual experiences.


  1. I agree completely. I think this sexual/emotion connection between man and machine is a theme we see constantly throughout the novel. But I also think it somehow differs in this scene, considering the comparison seems to be between the copulating people and the carwash, instead of the car itself. I wonder what this means for the conventions of the novel that have occurred before this point? How is different from the "regular" relationship (by "regular," I mean "regular" by the novel's standards, not ours).

  2. I thought it was very interesting that the technology is said to be "benign." I would like to think that the use of this word makes the technology seem like it is not really negatively effecting anything in the sense that a benign tumor is not hurting the patient. Benign is defined as gentle and referring to the technology as gentle is providing a different interpretation of the technology in the sense that it has the ability to not be gentle. This makes me think that even though the cars are able to seem violent (in a car crash) it is not the violence these characters see in the cars, but rather it is the "benign" aspect of technology.

  3. Something really interesting about this scene for me is the importance of watching -- sex, crashes, celebrities. Ballard seems to enjoy looking, and this is connected with a desire to control the sex act -- "I wanted to reach out and care for them, helping them into their next sexual act" -- without participating. This voyeurism or scopophilia is a consistent theme in the novel which is especially poingant in this passage.

  4. This voyeurism, too, is responsible for a major shift in the novel. Namely, that Ballard seems first to gain control over Vaughn when he's watching (through the rearview mirror), Vaughn's sexual interactions with the dark haired girl (the girl who looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor, we are reminded). Thus, as Ballard controls Vaughn's sexual movements through his manner of driving--"I could almost control the sexual act behind me by the way in which I drove the car"--he metaphorically seems to penetrate Vaughn (the homosexual act deflected--and reflected--through the mirror and the car, the mediums of penetration).

    1. I agree with Anna that the moment with the two whores in the car is a point in the book that shows Ballard's voyeurism, but the thing that struck me the most, and seamed to show just how obsessed Ballard was with watching Vaughan have sex, was that he is so engrossed in it, so focused on the act going on in the back of the car and how he can influence it, that he completely ignores the whore that was assigned to him. And yet, when the two leave the car, he pays her as well, hinting that she either didn't do anything to him, and that, for him, watching Vaughan was just as good, or that she did indeed pleasure him in some way, but he was so focused on Vaughan and the dark haired girl that he doesn't even notice.

      ... Or I just missed something, that's always a possibility too

  5. I think the word "fascination" is an understatement in reference to James's obsessive desire to see his wife have sex repeatedly, to the point that neither his wife nor Vaughan seem to be enjoying themselves in the least. It's interesting that he says he wants to "help" them into their next sexual act considering that as long as he puts money into the car wash, they seem compelled to emotionlessly fuck for James's enjoyment more than their own.

  6. Out of curiosity, did anyone else notice that Ballard never uses any euphemisms for the sexual encounters through out the book. He talks of vague eroticism and calls each encounter a "sexual act" or "sex act." The only time he uses the phrase "made love" is right before he and Gabrielle have sex. P175 "Gabrielle showed no hostility to Vaughan for this, but it was I who first made love to her." I assume this change of terminology is significant for reasons involving her already being "part machine" and the fact that their "love making" does not involve any of the usual methods of sex, but rather directly involves their various scars. We can also link their methods of "sex" (see the use of the scars) to Ballard's reaction to the damage Vaughan inflicts on Catherine's car, i.e. he runs his fingers through the groves and scratches (almost lovingly I'd say). I wonder if the change in terminology, method of intimacy, and Gabrielle's close integration with machinery allows Ballard to get even closer to the machine fascination of the car wash scene.


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