Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard Picador (2001) Originally published in 1974 176 pp
Concrete Island was the middle of three “steel and concrete” short novels written by J.G. Ballard in the 1970s. The first, Crash, was made into a film which kicked up a stink due its depiction of people with fetishes for car accident victims. The third, High Rise, is soon to be adapted by Ben Wheatley and details a civil war between residents of a block of luxury flats. It was announced five years ago that the screen version of Concrete Island should be along one of these days too. Quite what it will include is not so clear, because despite various attributes it is rather a slight novel in terms of characterization, ambition, and scope. Nevertheless, what works best is that the world the novel inhabits exists today in countries that should know better. The standard description of this novel as something like “urban science fiction” is inadequate because its setting, if anything, is too realistic.
Whilst driving west on what is not named but is clearly the hideous A4, which carries one from central London towards Heathrow Airport and the West, 35-year-old architect Robert Maitland loses control of his Jaguar, crashes through a barrier, and rolls down a 200-foot embankment. He drags himself back onto the edge of the road to seek help but is ignored by passing motorists for a few hours before a trestle he kicks into the road in frustration is knocked towards him by a passing car, causing an injury which forces him back down into the concrete island, surrounded on three sides by 200-foot high gray walls. And that, really, is pretty well it.
The rest of the novel is split between his forlorn attempts to escape and his efforts to dominate the island. In Robinson Crusoe fashion, Maitland needs fire. Instead of rubbing sticks together, he uses his car’s cigarette lighter. He is thirsty, so instead of breaking open a coconut he drains the car’s windscreen washer reservoir. He needs a crutch, so instead of breaking a branch he pulls his car exhaust apart. His ordeal is presented is predictable stages in that he arrives, he fails to escape, then he explores and salvages what he can from his car. Then, he accepts that he might be around for a while, shortly after which his new surroundings become his home. So far, nothing here is especially interesting. There is only so much one can write about gray walls and the noise of traffic beyond them, but this does not stop Ballard trying. The general result is evidence of the limited scope for such a novel, hence repetition is necessary to pad it all out a bit. A single sample will suffice:
In his aching head the concrete overpass and the system of motorways in which he was marooned had begun to assume an ever more threatening size. The illustrated route indicators rotated above his head, marked with meaningless destinations . . .
There is a lot of this. There should not be too much of anything in a novel of 170 pages. And a continuity error involving money and Maitland shaving — shaving! — in his situation rather demeans the idea that this should be a novel at all. Maitland barely alters, and what we know is coming — that he will stop trying to escape the island and instead try to dominate it — is brought to us quickly. He encounters two other characters: a mad, whorish girl and a grunting, Caliban-like tramp. The dialogue which occurs is so functional that it reveals a remoteness to Ballard’s dealings with the human race. The characters are almost a gesture, a mechanism via which Ballard writes about things more interesting to him. Maitland finds lots of things, such as buried remains of former buildings, an ex-cinema, an air raid shelter and an abandoned churchyard, but none of it makes any apparent difference to him at all. No novelist can expect readers to be engaged by characters and situations so perfunctory that they fail to stimulate the writer himself. There are examples of short stories which later made excellent novels — Fahrenheit 451 was one — but Concrete Island feels like it should have been the opposite.
Which is odd, because Ballard’s short story output was prodigious. A 2010 complete omnibus contained ninety-eight stories across 1,200 pages, amongst them (it can’t be ignored) “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race.” Other ideas investigated are local people who disfigure a massive corpse they find on a British beach, eventually rendering it down into fat. Elsewhere, a shop supervisor keeps a model of his home town in a box at home, complete with live-action figures. Ballard was a man of an extraordinary quantity of ideas, some of them bearing parallels with José Saramago’s looks into what happens when something taken for granted suddenly ceases to be, such as, in his case, sight, death, and the rather attractive idea of a general election in which a large majority of the population casts blank ballots. The point to be drawn from all this is that Concrete Island does not necessarily contain the finest of Ballard’s ideas.
Let it not be said, however, that nothing works here. This would be an excellent choice to accompany a train or coach ride through urban Britain, perfectly complimenting occasional looks out of the window for confirmation that practically everything constructed there since World War Two is of almost indescribable vileness. And designed, in fact, by architects like Robert Maitland. There are examples in practically every town and city, and Ballard saw them clearly. Though he is known as a writer of science fiction, Concrete Island is set firmly in this world of drainage culverts, concrete overpasses, grey ramps, and dark tunnels. The “circuitous route through the labyrinth of motorways” which Maitland seeks could be an experience easily replicated today without having crashed one’s car through a barrier; simply attempt to address the M8 motorway on the outskirts of Glasgow or Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham. If the “forgotten world whose furthest shores were defined only by the roar of automobile engines . . . an alien planet abandoned by its inhabitants, a race of motorway builders who had long since vanished but had bequeathed to him this concrete wilderness,” sounds appealing, head for the once attractive Victorian town of Reading, formerly, according to Roger Scruton, “a charming Victorian town, with terraced streets and gothic churches crowned by elegant public buildings and smart hotels.” Had he not crashed and instead continued west for about another forty-five minutes, Reading is where Maitland would have ended up. The only difference between it and the concrete island into which he did plummet is that it might have been easier to escape Reading, perhaps from its crumbling concrete bus station. The best that can be said of Reading now is that at least the graffiti which defaces it cannot be described as vandalism.
For further evidence that Ballard was not predicting the future but observing the present, you are urged to put Google to use to browse the following sample of London monstrosities: Trellick Tower in Kensal Town, Balfron Tower at Bromley, the National Theatre at the Southbank, Robin Hood Gardens at Poplar, and The Barbican. All unspeakably appalling and all built between 1966 and 1976, by which time there wasn’t even the excuse of war damage presenting the need for swift and functional building. Rather, it was deliberately unattractive functionality inspired by the sinister early to mid-twentieth century ideas of the highly suspect Frenchman Le Corbusier, who, according to Theodore Dalrymple, “was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform.” Where his designs were constructed — such as in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, which is separated into numbered concrete sectors — no tourism industry exists, and aesthetics and indeed history have been obliterated. There is nothing to remind anyone of what was there before. Pol Pot and Le Corbusier could have shared the motto assigned to them by Dalrymple: “before me, nothing: after me, everything.” Like Le Corbusier’s vision, Maitland’s surroundings are threatening to human life; they confuse, overwhelm, and intimidate. It is a nice touch of Ballard’s to make Maitland an architect, as it invites the conclusion that he gets everything he deserves. But there the engagement with the human beings of Concrete Island stops.