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Concrete Island (1974)Author: Simon Sellars • Sep 17th, 2006 •
“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”.
Architect Robert Maitland crashes his Jaguar one afternoon, marooning himself on “a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes”. Injured and hidden from the passing motorists, Maitland withdraws into his own skull.
As Ballard states in his introduction to the book:
Modern technology, as I tried to show in Crash… offers an endless field day to any deviant strains in our personalities. Marooned…on a traffic island, we can tyrannise ourselves, test our strengths and weaknesses, perhaps come to terms with aspects of our characters to which we have always closed our eyes.”
Accordingly, Concrete Island appears to be the most ‘human’ of the trilogy: the characters are more rounded than the ciphers depicted within Crash, as Maitland has been ejected from that particular terrain. The Psychological State Apparatus — the motorway — is no longer there to guide him, and Maitland is confronted with the best and worst aspects of his inner being represented by the woman and the simpleton he meets on the island, and the island itself. (The ‘borrowing’ from Robinson Crusoe is apparent – Ballard fully acknowledges it).
Seemingly purged of the doubts and insecurities brought on by [post] modern living, Maitland readies himself and the reader for the next challenge, glimpsed subliminally by our hero:
It was now ten o’clock, and the first lights were going out in the high-rise apartments.”
Some quotes from the back cover of the 1994 Vintage edition:
Ballard writes with taut and precise economy, and the moral of his brilliantly original fable is plain: the interstices of our concrete jungle are filled with neglected people, and one day these people could be ourselves.”
“Ballard’s violent exact prose carries you along irresistibly. You believe him, you accept his vision, and it is a fearful one.”
“The challenge of man thrown onto his own resources is always a sound dramatic theme, and J.G. Ballard in CONCRETE ISLAND explores it brilliantly. This allegory of modern life is both compelling and profound.”
L.J. Hurst has written a detailed analysis of the novel:
Peter Brigg explicitly states that Concrete_Island and High-Rise have “omniscient narrators”. It is the disproving of this, and the proof of that disproof which help to raise the importance of the novel in the Ballard canon: it may be one of Ballard’s most successful experiments in narration. In discussions of Ballard’s narrative experiments – the advertisements he placed in magazines, the show of crashed cars at the ICA, the condensed novels which first appeared in The_Terminal_Beach are then held to have exploded in The_Atrocity_Exhibition, so that much later works like “The Index” and “The Sixty Second Zoom” are no more than fragments. However, it is quite clear that Ballard has made other explorations of narrative, and Concrete_Island is one of his newfound and new won lands in that exploration. While David Pringle sees the third person narrator of High-Rise as Ballard himself (Pringle page 50), the third person narrator of Concrete_Island is one of the characters – Robert Maitland – and Maitland shapes everything in the book.
The depth of textual study required to demonstrate the truth of this claim is some indication of how cleverly Ballard hid the fact that this is not an objective, realist novel. Whether this was Ballard’s intention is neither here nor there, it simply helps to reinforce the truth of that dictum of D.H. Lawrence – “Never trust the teller, trust the tale”. The creation is greater than the creator.”
L.J. Hurst. ‘Through the Crash Barrier: J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island’.
• Read Ballard’s 1994 introduction to Concrete Island.
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