Beyond the crash barrier

September 28, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Concrete Island. J.G. Ballard; Picador, $18.00 paper, 180 pp., 978-0-312-42034-5.

concrete_picador2001_250Concrete Island was first published in 1974, one year after the appearance of Crash, arguably J.G. Ballard’s most notorious novel. A surrealistic prose poem about the collision of mechanical industry and the human condition, Crash shocked an English reading public that was utterly unprepared for its explicitness and scabrous nihilism. Concrete Island is at once a quieter book and a deceptively subversive one. While it appears at first to cleave more closely to a recognizable tradition of social realism, the narrative becomes more oblique and impressionistic the longer it goes on. By the time this brief novel has run its course, it has become something of a hybrid: a peculiar modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe, with aspects of Shakespeare’s Tempest thrown in for good measure, and a satire on modern urban anomie.

As the story opens, Robert Maitland, a 35-year-old architect, leaves his office to drive back to the home he shares with his wife, having just spent a week with his mistress, when a blow-out forces his car off the exit ramp of an elevated highway and onto a triangular traffic island beneath the junction of three roads. In the manner of social realism, the details provided in the novel’s opening sentences are specific and exact:

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 near-side tyre. The exploding air reflected from the concrete parapet seemed to detonate inside Robert Maitland’s skull.

The reader will note the switch in the final quoted sentence from a detailed mimetic narration into the realm of metaphor, a slippage that will persist throughout the remainder of the narrative. Indeed, having scaled the embankment to the road, only to be knocked back again by a passing car, his body transformed into “an atlas of wounds,” Maitland, increasingly despondent and (apparently) alone, begins to conflate his own physical body with the island: “Identifying the island with himself, he gazed at the cars in the breaker’s yard, at the wire-mesh fence, and the concrete caisson behind him. These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body.” In his pain-addled psychic state, and having succumbed to fever, Maitland imagines making a circuit of the island, leaving “sections of himself where they belonged.” He speaks, like “a priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body,” and his sacramental offering – “I am the island” – erases the ontological distinction between himself and his surroundings. Volition, in Maitland’s feverish brain, becomes transferable; where earlier he had supposed that by driving recklessly when there was no need “he had almost wilfully devised the crash,” he now attempts to effect “the transfer of obligation from himself to the island.”

All of this is grounded in a rigorously detailed depiction of the physical environment that surrounds him: “The ground was littered with cigarette packs, stubs of burnt-out cigars, confectionery wrappers, spent condoms and empty match-books. Fifty yards in front of him the concrete caisson of a traffic sign protruded from the embankment.” But while the mimetic details remain foregrounded, they constantly abut more uncanny language, which often involves the transformation of the environment that has become Maitland’s de facto home into something threatening: the grass around the concrete verge is repeatedly described as “seething,” headlights “[flare] in the liquid darkness,” and the rain “lash[es]” and “sting[s] his cold skin.” When Maitland realizes that he is not alone on the island, his new companions – Jane, a prostitute, and Proctor, a hulking man-child who fancies himself an acrobat – secrete him away in a room festooned with wigs, make-up, and a poster of Charles Manson.

If the second half of Concrete Island is a gloss on Shakespeare’s final play, Proctor is clearly a stand-in for Caliban, while Maitland shares properties in common with Prospero. But this relationship is a debased and comically inverted one. Having secured his dominance over Proctor by humiliating him in a particularly degrading manner, Maitland tries to trick the illiterate giant into writing “MAITLAND HELP” on the concrete embankment, telling Proctor that the letters spell out Proctor’s name. Proctor, emboldened by his desire to see his name scrawled across the concrete, scribbles bastardized versions of “Maitland,” “happily chalking the letters in streamers down to the ground, as if determined to cover every square inch of the island’s surface with what he assumed to be his name.” Proctor’s attempt to name the island acts as an ironic inversion of Maitland’s own eucharistic invocation earlier in the novel, but it also serves as a comedic reiteration of the connection between Maitland and the island itself.

Indeed, Maitland’s project throughout the book – escape – becomes increasingly ironic the more closely he is associated with the island. He alternately pleads with Jane to show him her “secret pathway” off the island – the route she uses to go to work – and insists that he doesn’t want to leave: “As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly want to get away from here. Not for the moment, anyway.” Maitland comes to realize that escape can take the form of a physical ejection from the island, or a mastery over it. Instead of a prison, the island ultimately comes to represent a kind of kingdom for Maitland: a place in which he may hold sway over his environment and its inhabitants, even dispensing a kind of noblesse oblige by making love to Jane and bribing Proctor with bottles of wine from the case that was in his car’s trunk when he crashed. Although his early attempts at escape are tortured failures, his final recognition about Jane’s “secret” route provides him with a “new-found physical confidence.” The concluding scene of the book finds Maitland alone once again and, for the first time since his accident, having found something resembling peace of mind. Freedom, for Maitland, comes not from being alone, but from being alone by choice. His ability to reconcile himself to his situation is the final satirical barb in Ballard’s mordant little fable.


2 Responses to “Beyond the crash barrier”
  1. This was the first Ballard I’d ever read, back in high school. I really should revisit.

  2. Alex says:

    Resist, Corey. Resist.

    Going back to read faves from our childhood can be a terribly disillusioning experience. Those books are never as good as you remember. Just cherish any fond memories you have and let the rest go.

    Ballard is the kind of writer who makes more sense, or maybe just sounds better, in high school anyway.