There has always a kind of inverse correlation between the visual eccentricities of the Volkswagen Beetle and its enduring place in certain histories of the twentieth century—an incongruence between its bizarre shape and the profound individuals that have fashioned that shape over time. In Gravity’s Volkswagen, Nicholson goes to great length to remind us of the most extraordinary tales involving the Love Bug, from the car’s well-known birthplace as the brainchild of Adolf Hitler, to the inebriated John Bonham and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin powering a white Beetle into Icelandic waters to test the car’s alleged waterproofness (the expedition which inspired ‘The Immigrant Song’), to the car used purely as a crucifix in the performance art of Chris Burden.
These anecdotes are embedded in writer Ian Blackwater’s account of his own outlandish experience of VWs, offering checkpoints of truth (albeit still mad) to Nicholson’s bonkers satire. Blackwater’s modestly-selling dystopian novel Volkswagens and Velociraptors (a book referenced with equally modest enthusiasm by the author) is being turned into a film by the volatile and underfunded Hollywood director Josh Martin somewhere in the industrial trailer parks of Fontinella (U.S.A). Blackwater’s novel is set in a post-apocalyptic London where the only survivors are the members of a VW collector’s club. They turn totalitarian while fighting the feathered brutes so misrepresented in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the monster chosen by the writer ‘for their alliteration potential as much as anything else’.
The set for Josh Martin’s doomed adaption is situated next to an automotive freak-show led by Motorhead Phil, whose ticket sales seem to be declining along with the success of the film’s production. A war of attrition exists between the two institutions; the only way Blackwater is able to make himself useful on set is to continually enter Phil’s precincts and bribe them into cutting the motors, so that the cameras may roll in peace on the other side of the wall. There he meets Leeza, a mathematically-minded daredevil (not short on sex appeal) who launches her customised VW between jumps on a daily basis, and Barry, a manic-depressive imprisoned in his own Beetle by his sheer weight, combined with the desire for Leeza to one day crash-land directly onto his car.
What ensues is a race (pun intended) for Ian to salvage both the remaining thrills of the automobile show and the very last scraps of artistic integrity trailing behind the adaptation of his book. Neither is easy, especially factoring in Nicholson’s hilarious knack for bathos, offset with Blackwater’s prevailing sense of hope in any given situation. But what’s so refreshing, in what could easily be an unbearably off-the-wall piece of comic fiction, is an overriding appreciation of—and faith in—this car. Whether in the delivery of vengeance to Josh Martin, or in references to unremitting urban myths such as the VW filled with concrete by the cheated lover, both the car’s history in the broadest context and its centrality in a book essentially about human failure combine to explain the ubiquity of such a machine. This is no small feat.
This is a very smart book, one that is a parody as much as it is a pastiche (note ‘James Ballard’ as protagonist in Crash) of the far more renowned works that illustrate the flaws and thrills of our automotive jungle.