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Car accidents in fiction and film   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Car accidents in fiction and film
cars, accidents, death, modernity, technology, fiction, film
Saturday, April 16, 2005 07:05 GMT

I have often been surprised how ready novelists and filmmakers are to use car accidents as decisive in their plots - usually as a way of killing off a character.

There are so many examples. I take just one: Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. It's about a guy's search for peace and spiritual fulfilment in a fishing town in Newfoundland after a lifetime of urban indignity. How will the author extract this indecisive, battered man working awful jobs in upstate New York from his social relationships and move him to Newfoundland? She must first kill off everyone who anchors him where he is and introduce a domineering aunt who can reveal to him the history of his Newfoundland roots and take him off there for rest and a change of scenery.

He is not a sociable guy; Proulx can satisfy herself with a modest number of murders. First, the parents, who each die of cancer within a month of each other. Liver for the father, brain for the mother. Cancer is the other form of novelistic demise; but more on that another time.

Then the mother of his kids. She's a femme fatale who's left him in order to seduce every other guy around; but he's locked into a strange sort of dependency with her and she has to be disposed of for the narrative to proceed. This is how it is announced to the reader:

"Quoyle had gasped, the phone to his ear, loss flooding in like the sea gushing into a broken hull. They said the Geo had veered off the expressway and rolled down a bank sown with native wild-flowers, caught on fire. Smoke poured from the real estate agent's chest, Petal's hair burned. Her neck broken."

This is the quintessential novelistic account of a car accident. The accident itself doesn't unfold in novelistic time but comes to us, like a shock, as a news report, a rumour. "They said" the car had veered off - because the exact moment of the accident cannot be accessed even by omniscient narrators. There is a secret core to a car accident that must remain so.

The car accident is such a cliché that you would have thought that novelists would be desperate to avoid it. But what kind of death would they turn to? They face, on one level, the simple issue of plausibility: car accidents are a form of chaotic intervention that can still be imagined in societies that have worked so hard to eliminate chaos. Sudden infectious diseases, natural disasters, and bizarre coincidences all belong, for the pragmatic literature of such a society, to the realm of "magical realism."

And yet should the sheer number of car accidents in books and film not still make us feel that there is something "magical" about this particular form of deux ex machina ("una machina"...)? I think this would be the case if there were not a deep truth buried in the car accident that we already know to be the case, such that we can accept the almost infinite repetition of it without feeling that plausibility is in some way being compromised. This truth is that of the catastrophe latent in modernity and liable at any point to burst out - which the car accident encapsulates better than anything else precisely because of its banality.

This may be extended with the following passage from The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch:

There is an exact ratio between the level of the technology with which nature is controlled, and the degree of severity of its accidents. The pre-industrial era did not know any technological accidents in that sense. In Diderot's Encyclopedie, 'Accident' is dealt with as a grammatical and philosophical concept, more or less synonymous with coincidence.

The pre-industrial catastrophes were natural events, natural accidents, They attacked the objects they destroyed from the outside, as storms, floods, thunderbolts, and hailstones. After the Industrial Revolution, destruction by technological accident came from the inside. The technical apparatuses destroyed themselves by means of their own power. The energies tamed by the steam engine and delivered by it as regulated mechanical performance destroyed that engine itself in the case of an accident. The increasingly rapid vehicles of transportation tended to destroy themselves and each other totally, whenever they collided. The higher the degree of technical intensification (pressure, tension, velocity, etc.) of a piece of machinery, the more thorough-going was its destruction in the case of dysfunction, The breaking of a coach axle in the eighteenth century merely interrupted a slow and exceedingly bumpy trip on the highway; the breaking of a locomotive axle between Paris and Versailles in 1842 led to the first railroad catastrophe that caused a panic in Europe.