Concrete Island, by JG Ballard

>> Monday, May 30, 2016

TITLE: Concrete Island
AUTHOR: JG Ballard

PAGES: 176

SETTING: 1970s London
TYPE: Fiction

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 secular allegory.
Driving too fast in his Jaguar, on the way back from a weekend with his mistress, architect Robert Maitland crashes through the barriers off the motorway and onto a traffic island. He's basically ok, and assumes the ambulances and police will be coming soon. They don't, and getting off the island on his own is much harder than Maitland assumed.

This started out well. The metaphor is a bit heavy-handed (yeah, yeah, alienation, disconnection, in this society no one cares about the life-and-death struggles going on right under their noses as they hurry to their appointments), but the point does stand, and the metaphor is an interesting one. I also liked the way it was written. I had expected that the setup was going to be somehow supernatural (e.g. he'd try to climb an embankment that looked only a couple of metres high, but no matter how much he climbed he'd always be in the same spot... that sort of thing). But Ballard opted to write it as real, and to me, that made it a lot more effective. I believed in Maitland himself. In that absurd, surreal situation he finds himself in he still behaves like a real human being would (the fact that right after the accident he's not particularly rational is both necessary for the plot and completely understandable). Also, he's a bit of a shit, but he's meant to be.

But then Maitland realises that he's not alone on his island, and as soon as other characters are introduced, the book turns to shit. Ballard is fine when his character is a middle-aged straight white man. As soon as he moves away from that, he's lost. There's an older man, a tramp with a brain injury who's basically depicted as animalistic and grotesque. There's a young prostitute who's all the most offensive stereotypes about women combined. The interactions between the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The point when I realised the book was not going to recover was when Maitland decided to assert his dominance (which the narration implies is only natural and something we readers should see as the reestablishment of order) by pissing on the tramp and fucking the woman. The book completely lost me then.



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