31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 28: “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard

May 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Best_Stories_of_JG_BallardIf the job of science fiction writers is to take the measure of our present and gaze into the future with an eye to providing an imaginative assessment of where we might be headed, it is hard to cavil with the prescience of the late English author J.G. Ballard. Hard, and quite terrifying, since what Ballard wrote, by and large, was at the time considered dystopian fiction. Today, it might well be considered simple naturalism.

Take, for example, this passage from his story “Chronopolis,” describing the burnt-out husk of a dessicated urban downtown:

On either side buildings overtopped the motorway, the congestion mounting so that some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades.

In a few minutes they passed between the first of the apartment batteries, the thousands of identical living units with their slanting balconies shearing up into the sky, the glass in-falls of the aluminum curtain walling speckling in the sunlight. The smaller houses and shops of the outer suburbs had vanished. There was no room on the ground level. In the narrow intervals between the blocks were small concrete gardens, shopping complexes, ramps banking down into huge underground car parks.

Ballard’s story was published in 1960, but his vision of congested apartment complexes lining the side of the highway so tightly that “some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades” is a pitch-perfect description of the sight from the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto today. The vision of the city as “an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead center forty or fifty miles in diameter” is a fairly accurate description of post-white-flight Detroit. And the description of “plate-glass shopfronts” that have “slipped and smashed into the roadway, old neon signs, window frames and overhead wires [hanging] down from every cornice, trailing a ragged webwork of disintegrating metal across the pavements” could be a snapshot of an inner-city neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Los Angeles. (Or, for that matter, Hamilton or London in Ontario.)

If these portraits seem eerily familiar from a 2014 perspective, we would do well also to pay attention to Ballard’s more exaggerated conceit in this story, since it, too, offers a highly ironic comment on aspects of our post-industrial, 21st-century milieu.

“Chronopolis” focuses on a society that has outlawed any kind of timepiece – clocks and watches are banned, and anyone caught in possession of one of these contraband objects by the secretive and ubiquitous Time Police is subject to arrest and prosecution. The crackdown followed a revolt against the highly regimented technological and bureaucratic makeup of what has come to be known as Chronopolis, or the Time City. All the clocks in Chronopolis “were driven by a master clock,” and the clocks dictated every moment of people’s lives. The city’s population had ballooned out of all proportion, such that the infrastructure in place was unable to handle the pressure on it. Therefore, each segment of society – executives, secretaries, manual labourers, and so on – were provided schedules detailing the daily blocks of time during which they were allowed to eat, use the telephone, watch television.

“Think of the problems,” one of Ballard’s characters says:

Transporting fifteen million office workers to and from the center every day; routing in an endless stream of cars, buses, trains, helicopters; linking every office, almost every desk, with a videophone, every apartment with a television, radio, power, water; feeding and entertaining this enormous number of people; guarding them with ancillary services, police, fire squads, medical units – it all hinged on one factor … Time!

Once again, if this sounds uncannily like urban existence in 2014, we should take no comfort or pleasure in the recognition. “Don’t you think there’s a point beyond which human dignity is surrendered?” Ballard’s character, Stacey, asks regarding the concessions demanded of the citizens of Chronopolis.

Stacey is a teacher, who accompanies his student, Conrad, on a tour of the abandoned city center as a means of educating the young man in the ills of a technologically overdetermined society. Stacey has caught Conrad with a watch, and instead of turning him in to authorities, determines to embrace what would today be called a “teachable moment.”

Ballard employs a framing structure in his story, beginning and ending with Conrad, now known by his surname – Newman – in jail on a murder charge. The central portion of the story follows Conrad’s discovery of the phenomenon of clocks, watches, and regimented time, and his experience in the degraded downtown of Chronopolis. In prison, Newman has fashioned a rudimentary sundial for himself, which makes him invaluable to his warden, who becomes the most efficient member of the prison staff thanks to his prisoner keeping him on time for everything.

This is only the first of the several cascading ironies that flow throughout Ballard’s story. What is immediately noticeable is that while Ballard focuses on the community that has banished clocks and timepieces, he continues to return to the language of time and schedules. The English class that Stacey teaches runs exactly forty-five minutes; the teacher ensures he keeps to this by employing a rudimentary timer. Conrad appropriates the watch from a man who has a heart attack in a movie theatre; while movies in 1960 ran continuously, such that a viewer could come in at any time and stay for the next showing to catch what he or she had missed, as a medium, movies nevertheless unspool over a set running time. As the teacher and his student drive through the suburbs toward the heart of Chronopolis, they pass “a small factory still running although work was supposed to end at noon.” And later we are told that the pair drove on “[f]or half an hour.” The irony is sharp: even a society that has forsworn time and devoted itself to a kind of back-to-basics primitivism is unable to jettison its temporal existence altogether.

The ironies come to a head in the story’s final section, after Newman finds himself convicted for a crime he did not, in fact, commit. He is at first delighted to discover a working clock in the cell where he is to spend the next twenty years, but the final lines of the story tilt in the direction of the madness that can result from the presence of a clock when all one has in one’s life is time.

It is also interesting to note the changing way in which Ballard refers to his protagonist. In the central part of the story, told in the narrative past, the character is referred to as Conrad, conjuring notions of the writer who sent his own most famous protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness: Conrad’s trip to Chronopolis, we can infer, is symbolically doomed from the outset. In the framing sections, he is called Newman, inviting commingled readings of a reborn “new man,” and a man of (or from) the future. But does the future represent a disavowal of industrial, technological society, or is this very disavowal, as we see at the story’s close, simply another road to ruin?

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.