fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Concrete Island by J.G. BallardConcrete Island by J.G. Ballard

In the early 1970s, J.G. Ballard was busily creating modern fables of mankind’s increasingly urban environment and the alienating effect on the human psyche. Far from humans yearning to return to their agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots, Ballard posited that modern man would begin to adapt to his newly-created environment, but at what price? Ballard’s protagonists in Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975) are modern, urbane creatures, educated and detached, who embrace their technology-centric lifestyles. But when conditions change, their primitive urges and psychopathologies emerge to horrifying effect.

In Concrete Island, a modern-day retelling of Robinson Crusoe, Ballard introduces the most unlikely set-piece for a modern novel, an overlooked patch in our overdeveloped cities, a triangular overgrown traffic island bordered by two expressways. This is the opening passage of the book:

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre. The exploding air reflected from the concrete parapet seemed to detonate inside Robert Maitland’s skull.

During the few seconds before his crash he clutched at the whiplashing spokes of the steering wheel, dazed by the impact of the chromium window pillar against his head. The car veered from side to side across the empty traffic lanes, jerking his hands like a puppet’s. The shredding tyre laid a black diagonal stroke across the white marker lines that followed the long curve of the motorway embankment. Out of control, the car burst through the palisade of pinewood trestles that formed a temporary barrier along the edge of the road. Leaving the hard shoulder, the car plunged down the grass slope of the embankment. Thirty yards ahead, it came to a halt against the rusting chassis of an overturned taxi. Barely injured by this violent tangent that had grazed his life, Robert Maitland lay across his steering wheel, his jacket and trousers studded with windshield fragments like a suit of lights.

Our protagonist Maitland finds himself injured and dazed, unable to climb up the steep embankments but also invisible from the drivers on the expressways. He tries to get drivers’ attention as they drive to and from home to work on the weekdays, and then as they drive off to picnics and other leisure activities on the weekend. As the days go by, he tries various ways to escape his situation, but fails to do so. He uses his store of wine from the trunk of his Jaguar to dull his pain and hunger, and finally resorts to setting his vehicle on fire to get attention. This does succeed in getting the attention not of passerby but instead two marginal individuals who have broken off from society: Jane, a young woman fleeing an unhappy marriage, and Proctor, a simpleton who was formerly an acrobat in a traveling circus. Proctor is strong but subservient to Jane, and she lives a strange decadent existence, turning tricks with passing motorists and smoking marijuana in an abandoned theatre.

When Maitland first encounters the two, they control the situation but extend aid to him. As he recuperates, his initial urgency to get back to his easy but empty existence with his wife, child, and mistress lessens, as he starts to find a strange comfort in leaving behind all the everyday stresses of modern life. He develops a sexual relationship with Jane, who insists on being paid five pounds to ensure there are no emotional ties whatsoever. Maitland seeks to enlist the aid of Proctor, but it is only when he exerts force over both Jane and Proctor that they grant him grudging respect. He then exploits Proctor by performing an unspeakable act of humiliation, as the vestiges of civilized behavior seem to melt away from him. The ending is inconclusive and leaves us with no clear-cut moral to ease our discomfort.

The story of Concrete Island is very simple indeed, almost a stage play with three principle actors, except that the most important character is the setting itself, the forlorn and ignored patch of discarded objects and marginal people which make up this island. The character of Maitland is far from a heroic protagonist, as his behavior becomes increasingly instinctual and selfish. And yet there is a strange appeal to their lives, forgotten by the modern world surrounding them. The ambiguity with which Ballard infuses his modern urban landscapes is his most powerful technique, as he explores the ‘inner space’ of his characters in his modern fables. If our obsession with modernity has desensitized us to our environment, can we really return to an earlier existence closer to nature? Or will we embrace technology and modern comforts, even at the expense of our emotional lives? It’s a valid question to raise, and certainly one that remains unanswered, even 40 years after the first publication of this strange and disturbing tale.

Published in 1974. On a day in April, just after three o’clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland’s car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament soon turns into horror as Maitland-a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe-realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind. Seeking the dark outer rim of the everyday, Ballard weaves private catastrophe into an intensely specular allegory in Concrete Island.