Books

Lech Blaine
Car Crash: A Memoir

Trauma fragments, or at times completely deconstructs, our perception of who we are. It can create two irreconcilable identities: selves “before” and “after”. Many memoirists and essayists turn to the page to labour with such experiences, seeking to further understand them and to articulate their resonance within a life. This can be a process of re-establishing the “I”: an “act of resurrection”, as Carmen Maria Machado writes of memoir in her genre-defying In the Dream House; a way to “summon meaning from events that have long been dormant”.

Queensland writer Lech Blaine’s debut book, Car Crash: A Memoir, is one such attempt. Developed from the author’s essay “iGrief: A survivor’s guide to dying”, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize, the book centres on a fatal car accident in Toowoomba in 2009. The story may be familiar to anyone who grew up in the country: a group of teenagers overload a friend’s car heading to a party, with two boys stowed in the boot. Blaine’s friend Dom – who isn’t drinking or speeding – is driving, but at one point he hits gravel and overcorrects into oncoming traffic. They crash, like “two protons colliding”, into an oncoming car.

The accident leaves Blaine unscathed, but two boys end up in comas, while another three – Henry, Hamish and Will – are killed. Over the following years, Blaine’s mental health deteriorates as he endures a grief he struggles to both understand and express. We learn he is a young man of warring personas – a politically minded “larrikin”, a “poet moonlighting as a hoon” – surrounded by the stoic machismo of young men who tackle hardship with “stiff upper lips”.

This plucky, chin-up culture – so recognisably Australian – ill-prepares Blaine for emotional turmoil. The author’s downward spiral shapes the book’s narrative arc, as he navigates his complicated relationship with his well-meaning but faltering parents, his tortured battle with survivor’s guilt, the court battle over Dom’s culpability and a worsening depression coupled with alcohol abuse and self-destruction.

For Blaine, the incident triggers a recurring dissociation – a severing from his identity, feelings and memories that feels like being “scraped out and put back in the wrong place” – as well as a pervasive atemporality, a sense of being “stuck outside of time, always plummeting back towards the lone event that mattered”. Memory becomes pliable and fickle, with trauma acting as a “firewall” that prevents Blaine from remembering his friends’ faces, or his recent words to them.

Blaine is engagingly candid on these embodied parts of the human condition, offering a visceral insight into the manifold effects of trauma on body and mind. However, he seems hesitant to interrogate these phenomenological experiences on a deeper level. Blaine reflects on these qualities in passing, illustrating in broad strokes what he experienced, but he rarely ventures far into the how or the why. These are not easy questions to answer, and perhaps it expects too much of the author. But there were moments where I was left curious, scribbling questions in the margins.

One of Car Crash’s most compelling aspects is its examination of the murky intersection between mourning and social media. Blaine describes in detail his post-crash plunge down a digital rabbit hole: doomscrolling profiles of his dead friends, poring over crash-related articles, clicking through old photos, googling his own name, and sporadically posting on Facebook. His writing is at its most perceptive and developed here, as he articulates how sincere displays of grief in the digital space become entangled with social status and self-curation. “It was grief expressed with the depth of a radio jingle,” he writes. “I was heading off allegations of indifference. It had nothing to do with Henry, or Hamish, or Will, and everything to do with me.”

Some parts of Car Crash are more refined than others, with certain chapters having a clearer narrative focus. The book can stray into extraneous detail, such as the back-and-forth romance Blaine has with a young woman named Frida, or his love-hate relationship with sport. These digressions serve a purpose but at times strain relevancy and interest. Occasionally the text steers into tired imagery and stale platitudes, hampering the reader’s immersion (lines such as “my body would always be a lost boat on a broken sea”, no matter how ardent, feel hackneyed). But Blaine’s buoyant voice keeps you engaged: its mordant, ocker-tinged humour counterweighs the book’s bleakness.

Thankfully, Car Crash avoids the trope of the victim-turned-survivor: storytelling within obfuscating binaries of good and evil, conflict and resolution, suffering and redemption. Such narratives risk mythologising the self, offering a narrative arc of rebirth that prefers resolution and coherence over ambiguity and disorder, potentially eliding trauma’s often complex embodied reality. Blaine astutely acknowledges that “trauma doesn’t allow for a heartwarming moment of redemption” – that recovery is often fragmentary, recursive and interminable. The author walks us out of his psychological nadir but doesn’t pretend that his struggle ends there.

Car Crash is a powerful memoir told compellingly, even if the quality of the writing fluctuates. The urge is to call such storytelling “brave”, but associating courage with the intellectualisation of trauma feels off. It is undeniably challenging to confront a past upturned by loss and to resurrect its pain, and this process – even in a book presented to the public – resists an outsider’s critique.

I was left considering why we seek out writing on trauma. Throughout the book, Blaine touches on the parasitic voyeurism that leeches off tragedy, with so many strangers drawn to his accident that it becomes impossible to distinguish “the rubberneckers from the genuinely bereft”. Blaine’s memoir seems to hold up a mirror, asking of the prying reader: What is it about the site of a crash that draws us in?

Jack Callil

Black Inc, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Lech Blaine,Car Crash: A Memoir".

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Reviewer: Jack Callil