Concrete Island by J G Ballard

1992 PB, art by Chris Moore

After the literary “incident” (to use the terminology of motorway signage) of Crash in 1973, 1974’s Concrete Island, in its slightness, can come across as something of a leftover, a using up of spare energies — the literary equivalent of a hubcap still trundling along the tarmac in the wake of a major collision. It’s the second volume in what has been called Ballard’s “urban disaster triptych” — the others being Crash and High-Rise (1975) — but aside from the fact it starts with a car crash and takes places in a concrete-bounded patch of wasteland, as a novel it doesn’t really share those two longer books’ future-shock levels of deadpan, maxed-out satire. Concrete Island isn’t, in the end, about the modern world, but, as with Ballard’s early, landscape-based fantasies (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), it’s about a retreat into the inner landscape of its protagonist.

The story begins with 35-year-old architect Robert Maitland emerging from a feeder tunnel adjoining the Westway/M4 [correction: A40(M), see comments] interchange when a tyre blowout throws him off the road into a triangle of long-grassed wasteland bordered on two sides by steep motorway embankments, and on the third by an impenetrable chainlink fence. Recovering from the accident, he finds his leg injured, perhaps broken, and when he struggles up the loose soil of the embankment to try to flag down a passing car, soon realises nobody’s going to stop — they’re all going too fast — and almost gets himself run over for his troubles. Retreating, exhausted and injured, he returns to the “island”, as he terms it, and starts working out how to get help, as well as how to survive on his limited resources in the meantime.

US HB, 1974, art by Paul Bacon

After a period of hunger and fever, punctuated by the constant frustration of his every attempt to signal for help, he begins to explore the island and finds it anything but barren. Beneath its long grass it’s “a labyrinth of depths and hollows”, containing the vestiges of some Edwardian terraced houses, a World War II air-raid shelter, the basement of a ruined post-war cinema, and an abandoned printer’s shop. Far from empty, the island — “this immense green creature eager to protect and guide him” — is almost alive. What’s more, he’s not its only inhabitant.

Despite its harking back to those earlier inner-landscape novels, to me there’s also a feel of hints, in Concrete Island, of new directions in Ballard’s writing. Jane Sheppard, one of the two people Maitland finds living in what he’d assumed to be a wasteland, is different from the usually cool, mature and glamorous fifties-Hollywood-style femmes fatale Ballard presents us with as the female lead/object of obsession in his fiction. Rather, she’s young, spiky, and dresses like a “cheap tart”; she swears and smokes pot. About the only thing she shares with Ballard’s usual female characters is that’s she’s clearly damaged, but unlike the overly-cool, deeply traumatised Giocondas he usually produces, Jane makes no attempt to hide it. Writing in 1980, David Pringle said this character was “the nearest thing to a ‘well-rounded’ female character in all [Ballard’s] novels”.

Another hint of something new comes when, at one point, Jane breaks into a stream-of-consciousness rant — but it turns out (from an interview reprinted in Extreme Metaphors) these passages were the result of Ballard transcribing a recording he’d made of a real-life angry outburst from his girlfriend. Nevertheless, these passages come across as a rare moment of stylistic wildness in Ballard’s usually very controlled prose, an opening up to something new.

1974 HB, art by Bill Botton

The other character on the island is Proctor, a clumsy, wounded ex-acrobat with the intellect of a child. Proctor, and the way Maitland takes command of him, makes it easy to suggest some parallels for Ballard’s novel: Robinson Crusoe (with Proctor as Man Friday), or The Tempest (Proctor as Caliban). In which case, is Jane, with her ability to leave the island, Ariel? (At one point I found myself wondering if Jane’s name didn’t suggest Maitland as a sort of Tarzan of the urban jungle, with Proctor as the chimp Cheetah.) And there’s the inevitable feeling, as with High-Rise, that this might devolve into a sort of inner-city Lord of the Flies, with Maitland hoping to be rescued while trying to fend off the breakdown of even this little, three-person social structure, before it murders him.

But Maitland, it turns out, was already living on a sort of island. He’d carefully arranged his life to keep a certain distance between himself and everyone else. He won’t be missed after his accident because his wife (the “cool, formal house with its large white rooms” he shares with her gives a good idea of the temperature of that relationship) will assume he’s with his mistress, and his mistress will assume he’s with his wife; meanwhile, his son will make his own way home when he’s not picked up from school, and his office is too used to his not turning up for days at a time to be concerned.

1976 Panther PB, art by Richard Clifton-Dey

The roots of this isolation are deep. The concrete island begins to remind Maitland of the main image he has of his childhood, of him playing alone in a high-walled garden. Are, then, Jane and Proctor some warped evocation of his divorced parents? Is Proctor an image of himself as an un-grown-up child in an adult body, socially awkward and clumsy? Is Jane some confused mix of all the women in Maitland’s life, the caring then suddenly distant mother, the coolly transactional lover, and the vulnerable, damaged little girl?

There’s definitely a feeling that what’s going on here is not some moral fable about the disconnection of modern life, but a psychodrama with its roots in childhood. (John Baxter, in his biography of Ballard, calls this book “the most overtly self-analytical of his novels”, but to me it doesn’t really come across as especially personal to Ballard — though perhaps that’s just in retrospect, with the Empire of the Sun a couple of novels away.)

Maitland, it seems, was only too eager to find himself marooned on this concrete island, and once he is, his real work is not to be rescued, but to let these nagging figures that the accident has shaken free from his brain — whatever they represent — run through their dramas until, played out, they leave him genuinely alone at last. Concrete Island, then, is about a man in search of a moment of inner peace — even if it takes a car crash, fever, and near starvation to achieve it.

1985 PB, art again by Chris Moore

The book has an interesting writing history. After its first draft, Ballard wrote a screenplay (now housed in the British Library) adapting what he’d written. He then went back to the novel and revised it extensively into its final, published form. The screenplay went unfilmed, but seems to have acted as a way of getting perspective on the novel prior to honing it into its final shape.

It remains something of a minor Ballard novel, lacking the iconic feeling of those books that grapple with the sort of archetypal (modern or timeless) landscapes found in The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash and High-Rise. But the book’s touching on childhood, in combination with its protagonist’s extended periods of hunger and fever, point towards it being another step closer to his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. After all, once the post-collision hubcap stops rolling and comes to halt, its bright chromium surface provides a perfect little mirror for what Ballard is doing here: a moment of self-reflection after some traumatic event.

Comments (2)

  1. madbear says:

    I haven’t check but i think it’s set where the Westway (A40) and the M40 (technically the A40(M)) meet. Westway does not meet the M4 at any point.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, you’re right. In fact here it is:

Add a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *