Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman. I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot. I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.
And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it. Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.
I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his. I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are: Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names. All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though. I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society. They are calculating, antisocial types.
In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:
Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3
The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous. From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing? Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?
Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?
I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this. I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.
As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel. It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here. Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL
The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island. Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.
On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:
Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive. As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54
The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too. The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe. It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.
How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate? Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built). Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?
The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think. Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise. Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.
Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable. Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting. I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.
The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.