Neil Gaiman

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete 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.

2 stars

The Sandman vol 1: Preludes & Nocturnes

The Sandman Vol 1 – N. Gaiman; Vertigo

I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s massively-famous The Sandman: Vol 1, Preludes & Nocturnes.  I had found the second volume very cheap at a library book sale. I have been putting off reading this series for a very long time, so when I got volume two practically free, I decided I would bite the bullet and read.  The Sandman is a series that began in 1989 and continued through 75 issue until 1996.  It has won acclaim in both the comics-community and in the general media (e.g. New York Times and Entertainment Weekly).

I have never been interested in this series because, after some review of the matter, I think that I am not on the same wavelength as Gaiman.  That’s a fair way of putting it.   I find Gaiman a bit creepy.  Not that I have ever met him, mind you.  There are female friends in my world who use the word “skeevy.”  No one has ever defined that word for me and I am hardly an expert in its usage.  However, if I had to associate it – yeah, it’s gonna be with Gaiman.  When I was dragging my feet about reading this series, I looked Gaiman up on Wikipedia. I even read an article about his wife.  Yeah, neither one is going to get invited over to a tea party at my house.  Again, nothing against them – we just come from widely divergent universes. Also, “gothic” is usually just creepy.

I actually attempted to read a couple of Gaiman’s novels.  I think I got at least 25 pages in Neverwhere.  And I did watch the DVD of Coraline.  But that’s as far as I was able to get.  Something about his writing or his ideas doesn’t mesh with me.  That is okay. I would rather be honest about it than lie and pretend to be a fanboy over this.

First impressions:  (1.)  the main character, Morpheus, looks like Gaiman.  And it’s not a look I like.  Arrogant of the author?; (2.)  man, I hope this isn’t just a revenge tale; (3.) The art is gritty. Dunno if I like the layouts.

After reading volume one, I can say that some of the contents are very dark and disturbed (depraved?).  But these elements are luckily buried in a story that is tolerable, not great.  The question is:  is the story there to provide a context for the darkness or do the disturbing parts just fill-out an otherwise credible storyline?  Immediately, I think most fans would say the latter.  I am not so sure.  There are some good ideas, don’t get me wrong.  For example, the interactions and juxtapositions in “Imperfect Hosts” is quite original and creative and I can get behind some of this inventiveness.   The same goes for “A Hope in Hell.”  Both of these issues demonstrate the best that is offered in this volume.  Creative and interesting.  But throughout the rest is a very dark and dim view of humanity.

I was never really able to sympathize or enjoy the Morpheus character.  Particularly, with his moping around and stereotypical portrait.  Pale, hairy, moping Gothic creature. And the thing is, while we are led to believe that this character has insight and is cunning, generally, I found him boring and lucky.  I am not familiar with Jack Kirby’s Sandman character, but I cannot say that Gaiman’s characterization is a winner for me.

So here is the thing. . . not all authors have universal audiences.  Many authors are able to reach most audiences.  Some strive to increase their audience.  Some authors have a select, carefully segmented audience and seek only to reach that number.  I suspect a lot of readers really dig Gaiman’s work and he does have a widespread audience.  For better or worse, though, I am not in that number.  I can recognize the quality parts in this volume, but hands-down I am completely more entertained and interested in Locke & Key and Scalped.   I do intend to read volume two of The Sandman, but we will see if I ever get father than that.  I am going to give the first volume three stars – because I do think it is deserving of precisely three.

3 stars