Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard
Speeding home from his London office, thirty-five-year-old Robert Maitland crashes his Jaguar off the highway and onto an empty stretch of land surrounded by speeding traffic. Dazed and wounded from his accident, Maitland slowly realizes he’s stranded. The traffic island is a dead zone triangulated between incessant motorways, a grassy surplus of city planning that was never meant to be traversed. And worse, nobody would care enough to look for him: his wife at home had grown accustomed to turning a blind eye to Maitland’s infidelities downtown and would certainly not suspect any mortal danger if he didn’t come home for a few nights at a time. Maitland’s life of excess and entitlement has finally caught up to him.
Originally published in 1973, J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island is a hyper-modern tale of survival and a portentous, scathing look at the perils of contemporary excess. Ballard delivers scenes of Maitland using the hood of his Jaguar for shelter and drinking fine red wine for hydration with a pointed sort of cruelty. Maitland’s plight is presented as wholly avoidable but universally possible; the novel conspicuously shines a mirror to reflect society’s current state. “In the polished panels of the rear wheel housing,” Ballard writes, ”Maitland stared at the distorted reflection of himself. His tall figure was warped like a grotesque scarecrow, and his white-skinned face bled away in the curving contours of the bodywork.”
Ballard shows his hand early in Concrete Island. Maitland, talking to himself, says “you’re marooned here like Crusoe–If you don’t look out you’ll be beached here for ever.” Concrete Island is indeed a twentieth-century Robinson Crusoe, and follows a number of the Defoe novel’s postcolonial plot points. Ballard feverishly expands and contracts Maitland’s traffic island into an expansive realm where anything can happen, resulting in scenes of dizzied exploration, discovery and transformation.
Concrete Island was published a year after Ballard’s celebrated novel Crash and thirteen years after his debut The Wind from Nowhere, yet the work still feels like an early novel by an underdeveloped writer. Ballard leans heavily on edgy similes, many of which reappear throughout the novel. In the above quote, Maitland looks “like a grotesque scarecrow” — later he “slid around like a scarecrow in his mud-spattered dinner jacket,” and even later “[leaps] along like an animated scarecrow.” In one scene, “the red glow [of his car’s cigarette lighter] warmed his broken hands like a piece of the sun.” In another, “his legs stretched in front of him like ragged poles.” Elsewhere, “his wet clothes clung to him like a dead animal.” This is problematic and lands as amateurish, and ultimately deflates the power of an otherwise moving turning point of the novel. “More and more,” Ballard writes, “the island was becoming an exact model of his head. His movement across this forgotten terrain was a journey not merely through the island’s past but through his own.” When Maitland speaks aloud, as if a “priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body” and declares “I am the island,” it’s difficult not to wonder how he can be both an island and a scarecrow at once.
Despite its shortcomings, Concrete Island remains a curious read. Ballard predates today’s trend of dystopian fiction by nearly fifty years, and fans of the genre should certainly experience its foundational works. Picador’s recent reissue is accompanied by a passionate introduction by Neil Gaiman that emphasizes Ballard’s importance and influence throughout today’s literary canon. While dated in its execution, Concrete Island remains conceptually relevant, and is a testament to Ballard’s resilience against modernity’s machinations.