by Lech Blaine
Published March 2021
In 2009, on the outskirts of Toowoomba, seventeen-year-old Lech Blaine was in the front passenger seat of a car with six other teenage boys, two in the boot. The car spun out of control, smashed into a median strip and then another moving car, leaving three dead, two in comas, one with severe injuries, and Blaine physically unharmed but mentally shattered.
This devastation at its core, Car Crash traces the contours of the accident’s repercussions by relating how Blaine’s mind and life were refigured by the incident. That there is no recovery for Blaine as such, that his subsequent path does not offer the pleasures of a neatly resolved narrative, becomes a way of considering broader cultural and political ills.
In 2016, Blaine was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for the essay ‘iGrief’, which was later published in Griffith Review as ‘The bystander: A survivor’s guide to dying’, and then developed into this book.
Where the original essay focuses on the moment of the crash and its immediate aftermath, the book expands to survey his survivor’s guilt, enmeshed with the corrupting force of unstable masculinity.
Car Crash examines numerous sources of communal and individual pain, among them trauma, recovery, the death drive, masculinity, class, the terrors of adolescence, what it means to know and love your family, Australia’s rural/urban divide, Australia’s political mediocrity, social media, sex, and literariness. As each of these zones of analysis is refracted through Blaine’s own development, the narrative takes on a ragged, breathless feel, as if yearning to discover linearity or resolution while simultaneously striving to demonstrate the impossibility of such aspirations. This seems to reflect the nature of Blaine’s experience, yet it is also symptomatic of the transition from essay to book, where the process of casting about for more to remark on becomes inherent in the expanded text’s structure. Where the essay is elegantly restricted to the terrible drama of the tragic night, recounting it minute by minute, the book, navigating the world beyond, is wobblier on its feet, as if emerging into disorienting brightness from a long dark. At times unable to effectively organise the additional material, what results is a recurrent fear of narrative or thematic gratification; Blaine often evades personal resolution, and softens insights with generalisation. Yet this is also an accurate representation of extreme trauma’s long tail, where suffering refuses to become the object of a clear-eyed gaze.
Because of this multivarious patchwork, the particular frequency at which Car Crash vibrates depends heavily on how you strike it; different questions yield different answers.
Dave Berman, a songwriter who Blaine speaks of admiringly throughout Car Crash, sang on his final album:
You got storyline fever, storyline flu
It’s filtering how everything looks to you
Don’t you reckon it’s affecting your attitude?
Storyline fever got its hooks in you
Storyline fever got its hooks in you
Sufjan Stevens said of Carrie and Lowell, an album about the death of his mother:
I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it. But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time.
After opening with a detailed unpacking of the car crash and its immediate consequences, Blaine returns to his childhood to contextualise the accident’s effects. Raised alongside six foster siblings, he was a miracle baby whose parents had accepted that they would never conceive a child until his arrival. His mother was ‘a bookworm and financial clerk’ who could ably recite Banjo Paterson, and his father ‘a 130-kilogram cab driver with a mullet and handlebar moustache who had never read a novel’, whose fortune grew alongside Blaine, expanding from ‘the lease of a rundown pub to owning six fixer-upper investment properties.’ (The portrait of the father, and Blaine’s relationship with him, I think, is the most tenderly sketched element in Car Crash.)
At 11, Blaine writes, he was ‘totally beholden to a holy trinity of influences: Christianity, masculinity and capitalism.’ He attended the all-boys St. Mary’s, a ‘budget private school’ where ‘sensitive young men went to become good blokes with ripped biceps and high libidos’. In this environment, the proper work that grief demands was, for Blaine, stifled. The narratorial voice is tight with the tension arising from the resulting anguish.
Memoirs tends to generate various degrees of narrative tension because the form requires the author to reconcile perspectives past and present. We have the narrator, drawing on something like their memory (Blaine makes clear in the acknowledgments that his book is ‘creative nonfiction, not journalism, reportage or a personal diary’), and the figure being remembered, blurred by distance, and meticulously judged with the curious blend of understanding and unforgiveness we reserve only for ourselves.
In Car Crash, Blaine’s narratorial demeanour shifts between the canny experience-won weariness of his present, and the youthful naivety of his past. The transitions aren’t always plainly delineated and sometimes observations are caught between these two states: knowing and unknowing.
After fellow passenger Henry’s death, Blaine posts a grieving message on Facebook (‘grief expressed with the depth of a radio jingle’) and changes his profile photo to a picture of them together. ‘How else,’ he wonders, ‘could I prove what I had lost?’
The question ends a sequence, and in doing so demands an answer from the reader, leading us to occupy either the perspective of the memoirist or the perspective of his remembered self.
Aligning with the memoirist would entail the reader engaging with the irony, the implication being that this example of social media posturing is a superficial, hollow performance that may provide fleeting catharsis but not enough to work through the kind of heightened mourning Blaine was experiencing.
Aligning with the remembered child, however, who is scrabbling for ‘proof’ of his grief, would mean seeing that, at seventeen, having witnessed a kind of violence that many of us, mercifully, go our entire lives without, sensitive insights were likely unavailable, and would have been so even absent the cumulative burdens of social media, competitive masculinity and the amplificatory hormonal buzz of mass adolescence.
The quality of a memoir depends on the arrangement of these competing visions, and Blaine’s narrative beats frequently draw attention to this multiplication of perspective, but the attention is hurried. Reading Car Crash often feels like engaging in conversation with someone who, when on the verge of delivering revelation, retreats to attack their subject from some new angle or to castigate themselves. This structure echoes the symptoms of trauma described throughout, as Blaine’s frequently referenced oscillations between self-doubt and confidence playing out formally. While such ambivalence is understandable, it isn’t thematised, meaning that Car Crash remains unfocused, never able to properly organise itself around a clear view. And structural fragmentation that could mirror the experience being rendered is neutralised by a reliance on generalising explanation.
Later, Blaine ends a poignant account of his therapy by wrapping a self-discovery in the quietening cloak of the universal: ‘We are all haunted by past mistakes and heartbreaks, and trapped within the invisible prisons of our brain chemistry and DNA.’
Blaine experienced a heartbreaking and specific catastrophe that warrants specific contemplation, and while it would be fair for such contemplation to be oblique, equating it with all haunting diminishes its significance. The implied reader, here, is someone who needs to be repeatedly reminded that Blaine knows he is not the only person to experience extraordinary suffering, someone who would not be generous enough to recognise that his perspective, partially formed by a random, violent event, is inchoate and provisional. This lack of faith in readerly sympathy curtails what could otherwise be productive ambiguity.
The promise of memoir is that it investigates the particularities not of life, but of a life, with any universal resonance deriving from the specificity. Car Crash offers something valuable and challenging: a trauma memoir that attempts to refuse an arc of easy redemption. However, this striving is undermined by the self-consciously literary attempts to stitch together the narrative with oversimple generalities that bring a halt to analysis, interruptions which come to distinguish (and sometimes extinguish) the author’s voice.
When considering the cruelty and imprecision with which car accidents are often reported, Blaine writes that ‘For the rest of my life, I would pay spiritual attention to every newspaper article about motor vehicle mortality. These are the secret scriptures of a survivor.’ This is a moving reminder of how residual trauma can contaminate the otherwise mundane, our daily habits, in addition to its more dramatic manifestations, Car Crash’s most affecting argument. However, just as Blaine positions himself to delve more deeply into this desire, to interrogate the impulse that drives this fearful close reading, he leaves it unexamined.
The space where Blaine’s own insight into the tensions of perspective and memory might be found is habitually left vacant, the lacunae inviting the reader to offer or suspend judgment on their own terms. While withholding can be powerful, it can also, when used for the sake of rhythm rather than analysis, leave the reader feeling as if the author has escaped, having slipped away while we were looking out a window to which they had directed our gaze.
Of course, there are also many moments where Blaine does make clear his position. One of the book’s movingly perceptive passages involves Blaine remembering a eulogy he gave for Henry, regretting the focus on his friend’s larrikinism rather than his talent for intimate kindness. Blaine takes the opportunity presented by his memoir to properly memorialise his friend:
I should’ve spoken about the marvel of meeting someone who enlarged rather than restricted my sense of self. But I downplayed the accumulation of company that can’t be spun into funny stories, and the comfortable silences that define a friendship just as much as the parties.
Blaine’s depictions of this kind of guilt are especially gutting because they make clear the stakes of loss, regret’s potential permanence. Is it possible to live well while anxious with the knowledge that we are guaranteed no protection from catastrophe or remorse? This question is the source of Car Crash’s momentum.
Blaine insists, ultimately, that no closure is available, and this resonates with the book’s sometimes deliberate, sometimes seemingly compulsive, resistance to decisive insight. However, the fact that the reader is holding the book provides an extratextual sense of an ending. Blaine fulfilled some kind of artistic destiny. In this way, Car Crash is a troubled bildungsroman at odds with its own finishedness.
The book’s final paragraph insists, in fact, that nothing can be finalised:
There was no closure. Trauma doesn’t allow for a heart-warming moment of redemption. We kept persisting anyway, epic vessels of emotion, less of a danger to ourselves and more of an open secret to those around us.
The last sentence, echoing the grand ending of The Great Gatsby, faces the difficulty of closing on a point of anti-closure by expanding its scope, again depending on the comfortable rhythm of the universal to dispel the discomfort of particularity. This can feel like a practice of wall-building, erecting defenses which demonstrate Blaine’s intuitive attunement to the mechanics of his survivor’s dread, while restricting its articulation.
In addition to this inclination to flee to the general, Car Crash tries out numerous defensive postures, among them knowingness. Getting out in front of your failures offers you some protection against them, and recognising the failures of others can provide a sense of stable ground, reassurance that your knowledge will save you from the fate of those you’re judging.
Much of the knowingness is deployed to highlight class distinctions in the effort, I think, to tell a greater story about Australian inequality and division, with Blaine making frequent digs at the upper crusts of Brisbane and Toowoomba.
Referring to the explosive growth of construction in his hometown, Blaine tells us that ‘Sheets of corrugated steel spread like melanomas across a sunburnt horizon, answering the cancer of drought with the radiation of real estate.’ (The real estate somehow both cancer and radiation.) Zooming in on the residents, ‘Lavish gardens shielded the courtyards where mothers drank shiraz instead of rum, different stiffeners for matching Lexapro prescriptions.’ Describing a private school friend’s parents, he writes ‘BMIs kept low by organic-based diets and gym routines.’ As an undergraduate at the University of Queensland, Blaine, working as a delivery driver for a gourmet pizza franchise, refers to himself ‘travelling ballistically across upmarket suburbs where consumers required caviar and prosciutto to justify the consumption of junk food.’
While these are subjects worthy of caustic criticism, the mode of critique is here displacement, where imagined details, flourishes of creative nonfiction, convey a detached authorial knowingness. The jibes seem to be introducing an investigation into Blaine’s own position in this world, but they are left undeveloped, serving not as phenomena to be analysed but as tedious nods to the genuine horrors of neoliberal capitalism. This is particularly frustrating because Blaine clearly has the talent for such analysis. The paradox of Car Crash is that as the book’s scope expands to take in Blaine’s life beyond the event, it finds itself with less and less space in which to draw conclusions.
Blaine is an unusually located figure in contemporary Australian literature, coming from country Queensland and well-acquainted with the class anxiety that accompanies a life spent straddling lower and middle socioeconomic strata.
Politics is a constant backdrop with Blaine imagining for himself a career in the field, at first shaped by a bleak childhood in the Howard years and a unionist father, then disillusioned by Labor’s abhorrent refugee policies and leadership debacles, and finally turning to literature, away from the prospect of a political life. But while questions of money, inequality, and ideological conflict are repeatedly overtured – the book seems to introduce them with a wish to confront and unpack them – they more commonly function as texture than substance. These kinds of suggestive implications that might effectively fuel an essay feel, in Car Crash, underdone, promises left undelivered.
There is sharp clarity in the book, but attending to moments when prose, in reaching for analysis, obscures rather than enlightens, clarifies how the book’s gravitational pull is often towards avoidance rather than confrontation.
A series of metaphors alluding to death, for example, repeat a pattern whereby the ornament of morbid imagery obfuscates the thing described. Blaine designates the venue that hosted his high school formal as having become ‘a crematorium for teenage dreams.’ Later, remembering a depressed and debauched schoolies celebration, he compares police breaking up proceedings to ‘morticians at a swingers’ party’. He begins a chapter describing his Toowoomba origins: ‘I came of age on the grave of a volcano. There was no saving me from the flames.’ (A metaphor that, notably, Blaine used verbatim to open a 2019 article for The Monthly, describing Christian conservative firebrand Lyle Shelton’s Toowoomba upbringing in place of his own).
Each of these images is excessive enough to jolt the reader away from the material. Formals can be grim affairs, but not universally incinerating; it isn’t immediately obvious – in the way illuminating metaphors should be – why morticians might be especially unwelcome at a swingers’ party (because they remind us of the organic meatiness of bodies?); and if a volcano is dead, I’d assume it’s also flameless. As the imagery is introduced, it feels like the camera has whip-panned away from its subject and, upon doing so, found itself staring down dead metaphors and death.
While these examples are energy-sapping, compulsive returns to questions of death and the body also propel the narrative. With regularity, Blaine is drawn back to the pleasures and terrors of embodiment and the adolescent body-horror of masculinity, how the development of a teenager’s physique transforms into a sexual, social and political statement. Throughout his adolescence, Blaine undertakes extreme fitness kicks and feels shame about his body’s inadequacy for the boisterous violence of rugby league. A cousin of Alan Langer (a Queensland deity, a genius of the game), Blaine struggles with what he perceives as a failure to fulfil the macho dreams of his dad, and his turn to his mother’s bookishness, as he was ‘converted to a life of reading and writing, just as she had been.’
When he finally raises this internal conflict with his dad, as they strip and paint a house together, his father responds, straightforwardly: ‘You can read books and still watch sports. It’s a piece of piss.’
As I have said, Blaine’s writing is, in fact, most engrossing, and most engrossed, when about his father. One way in which the book deals with its reluctance to confront trauma directly is by rerouting the issue through this paternal relationship, which anchors the narrative arc, permitting themes elsewhere smothered by quips to come to vivacious life. The complexity of suffering and recovery is best captured in moments where Blaine makes space for the knowledge and experience of others. During the house-painting session – which occurs concurrently to the deposing of Kevin Rudd (a politician for whom Blaine had briefly interned) as Prime Minister (an office Blaine had, as a youth, one day imagined holding) – Blaine hears, for the first time, his father’s history of trauma: the youngest of eleven with a knack for maths whose parents died awfully when he was a teenager, meaning even in the wake of a hideous meatworks injury (the source of a scar that had long been mystified), he worked 80-hour weeks. He was rescued from this tortuous life by, literally, winning the lottery. To demonstrate his thesis that life is worth living, the father gestures to the miracle son: ‘Luck doesn’t happen just once,’ he says.
A little over a year after the crash, Blaine is back in Toowoomba and charged with drink driving. One condition of his probation is that he see a therapist, so Blaine’s psychology student sister organises sessions with ‘a decorated professor named Christopher.’ ‘The only catch,’ Blaine reveals, ‘was that my confessions would be livestreamed to a theatre of graduate students.’
Such an arrangement seems as if it would constitute a major, possibly incapacitating, disruption to the therapeutic relation. Good therapy chisels away our performances, making space for perpetually subterranean feelings, emotions, selves to surface and mature. How might that be changed by the patient’s dual role as analysand and instructive example?
When Blaine experiences a breakthrough regarding the looming threat of his father’s rejection and absence, he remarks on ‘the jury of postgraduate students, who I’d almost forgotten were watching.’ Almost.
The arrangement is unsettling, but of course it is also the arrangement of memoir. To disclose your private thoughts to an unknown audience is at once frightening and alluring. It is frightening because it means ceding control of a narrative, alluring because it might prove that you are, simultaneously distinct and in company, that your suffering and insights are yours alone, and that they are shared, recognisable (a contradiction, but not an irreconcilable one).
Therapy is least effective when the patient does not trust their therapist and does not trust themselves. In this scenario, thoughts go unexpressed for fear that they’ll be misunderstood, admissions are suffocated by caveats, revelations are approached but then discarded as cliché, surely others have had them before. Reflections, rather than being permitted to develop and mature are obstructed by constant interruption.
As Blaine’s therapy is interrupted by his thoughts of those anonymous postgraduates, memory, in memoir, is interrupted by its audience, whether that audience be our own self-doubt, our readers, or fellow witnesses to the remembered events.
In discovering his father’s tragic origins, Blaine discovers himself as
An unreliable narrator…learning how two people can have different interpretations of the same event, how we can translate identical languages into love or pain, depending on point of view.
The opening chapter of Car Crash is oriented by an epigraph from John Ashbery:
No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Ashbery was the great modern poet of interruption, with rhythms that account for the constant possibility that our lives will be made suddenly unrecognisable by the intervention of something like a car skidding off the road, and that we will not be able to describe such interventions the same way twice, and that others will describe them differently.
Blaine includes the third and second final lines of Ashbery’s typically cryptic and astonishing poem ‘Wakefulness’. He excludes the last line:
Funny, none of us heard the roar.