Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

You think you know what to expect with Ballard, but that doesn't stop each book providing its own surprises. "Concrete Island" is one of the lesser known books from his imperial period of the early seventies, coming between "Crash" and "High Rise", his dystopias for the car and tower block. In some ways "Concrete Island" is implicitly at the junction between these two books. A reckless driver finds himself crashing off the motorway and his car coming to a stop on the "concrete island" at the centre of the motorway system. Whereas "Crash" is a novel about speed and obsession, "Concrete Island" is as hermetic as the sealed island that Robert Maitland finds himself on. He was on his way back home to his wife after a week with his lover, and caught between the two women in his double life, neither will miss him immediately - assuming he is with the other. In the boot of his car is a dinner suit and six bottles of wine, and a toolkit. This castaway is singularly unsuited to the unexpected situation he finds himself in. He tries to walk up the embankment and finds himself unable to wave down the fast passing cars, and any attempt to cross the road at the end of a blind tunnel would almost certainly see him knocked down. Yet to make the absurdity of his situation more believable, Ballard has him injure his leg making every tiny task more difficult. He is a vain man, unhappy in his life, privileged but soulless, and more than anything, without the necessary mental tools to plan his escape from this situation. The book, though dark, is something of a comic turn, for his attempts at escape are risible. His writing gets washed off the wall, his attempt to cross the road sees his leg seriously damaged. He can see the London skyline and his other life, and at one point even thinks he sees his wife rushing past in her car, oblivious to the secret of his disappearance.

Maitland is a hopeless Robinson Crusoe, the book's obvious literary ancestor, and like Crusoe he finds a Friday at some point - or rather there are two others who inhabit the island. A young woman, Jane,  comes here in between prostituting herself, scuttling on and off the island through a service tunnel, buying wine and cigarettes with her money; and a large, mentally-retarded man, Proctor is also on the island, living off the scraps from an illegal tip. This world is a deliberate grotesquerie, and on encountering his fellow islanders, Maitland plays them against each other. He ends up sleeping with the woman, and treating the man as his slave, riding on his back around the island. The story sees Maitland becoming more and more dependent on the island, and the idea of returning back to his previous life becoming unbearable to him. We begin to realise that he could have always escaped but has chosen not to, the island offering him the isolation and escape from his real-life problems that he was unconsciously searching for when his car went off the motorway.

So the book is a small, perfectly formed allegory - Ballard adept as ever in taking the logic of his illogical situation as far as it will go. The external world is deliberately excluded - everything takes place in this one small isolated place, like in a Beckett play. Indeed there is something stage-y about the story, and echoes of "The Tempest" as well as "Robinson Crusoe" come to mind. Whereas earlier Ballard's can sometimes seem confused in part, by this stage in his writing, everything is carefully planted, the prose deadpan and descriptive. Maitland, Jane and Proctor are perhaps the book weak point, as the three characters seem paper-thin, and almost from a seventies sitcom. Maitland is the typical Ballard "hero", a man of a certain age and class, whilst the other characters are respectively a stereotype and a grotesque. Yet it is never the characters in Ballard that matter, more how they interact with the vividly imagined environment. Here, the thin premise is spun out expertly across the short chapters, and bit by bit we realise that Maitland has found his home here on the island.

It may not be his standout novel, the premise little more than an extended short story, but its hermetic nature is its strength, and you finish reading it, as always with Ballard, having your own perspective on the world subtley changed - becoming part of his concrete environment. 

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