Concrete Island Paperback – October 5, 2001
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“Visionary of both style and substance . . . the literary equivalent of Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“Ballard's novels are complex, obsessive, frequently poetic, and always disquieting chronicles of nature rebelling against humans, of the survival of barbarism in a world of mechanical efficiency, of ethropy, anomie, breakdown, ruin . . . The blasted landscapes that his characters inhabit are both external settings and states of mind.” ―Luc Sante
About the Author
J. G. Ballard is the author of numerous books, including Empire of the Sun, the underground classic Crash, and The Kindness of Women. He is revered as one of the most important writers of fiction to address the consequences of twentieth-century technology. His latest book is Super-Cannes. He died in 2009.
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As I mention in the title, the story is a bit far-fetched, but is only meant to be a metaphor and not a how-to primer for survival in the world of higway medians, so the reader can fairly soon get past this. Our protagonist is involved in a single-car crash that lands him in some kind of gulag median from which he cannot escape, and he is helpless in all his attempts to get attention from his fellow man. OK, so far, and we get the point. Finally some other characters enter the picture, and it goes from Robinson Crusoe to a vivid and more nuanced look at modern socialization. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say society doesn't end all that well.
I liked the book, but in all seriousness I would not read it if I were in a depressed or pessimistic frame of mind, as it might reinforce your negative world view a little too much. Others might find it hopeful, in a way,
but I did not. Still, I liked and recommend the book.
Robert Maitland, a mid-thirties British architect who has it all (yet apparently has a deep-seated need to escape from it), gets more than he bargained for (or does he?) when his speeding car skids off a busy highway and strands him on a forgotten traffic island. Dazed, his misguided attempt to return to the road only manages to injure him to the point where he truly is marooned on the island, a stretch of land overgrown with high grasses and littered with the remains of abandoned cars and demolished structures. Largely out of sight of the fast-moving traffic, Maitland is unable to attract anyone's attention, despite numerous attempts. However, as he increasingly comes to realize, being "alone" doesn't necessarily mean there's nobody else around...
"Concrete Island" is a compelling short novel that works on multiple levels, as both a primal story of a man's attempt to survive and also as an exploration of existential ideas and commentary about human connections (or lack thereof) in our modern world. It raises questions about our expected roles in "civilized" society, the space between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (both metaphorically and literally), and our unspoken desires and fears.
So sit back and take a journey to the "Concrete Island." Stay as long as you like...
CI tells the story of Robert Maitland, a wealthy and successful architect and first-rate jerk, who loses control of his car, crashes through a traffic barrier, and ends up injured and stranded on a patch of derelict ground beneath the freeways of London. In a Robinsonade, a protagonist explores his new home, scavenges for food, develops a fever, devises shelter, and then discovers he is not alone. All this happens to Maitland, who survives through the odd kindness of his cohabitants. But as he survives, Maitland shows tendencies toward intimidation and manipulation and corrupts what was, before his arrival, a strange yet undeniable haven.
CI is an interesting but flawed book, IMO. In large part, this is due to Ballard's treatment of Maitland's dark side. While one character makes a connection between Maitland and capitalism, Maitland doesn't seem to represent anything larger than himself or provide meaningful insight on society or existence. Another flaw is the concrete island, which actually contains remnants of Edwardian streets, a movie theater, a cemetery, air raid shelters, and so on. But so what? Ballard fails to make much of these facts--although this enables the jacket copy to call this novel an allegory. Finally, Ballard wants to emphasize that the cold and ruthless Maitland is actually happiest when he is alone. But to create this final perfect zone for his protagonist, Ballard has to eliminate a character, which he achieves in a violently arbitrary fashion. Call it a dystopian deus ex machina.
Still, the second half of CONCRETE ISLAND is interesting and the novel is definitely good enough to finish.
Rounded up to four stars.
Top international reviews
Ballard creates a modern Crusoe-dystopia which is remarkable for its remorseless attention to physical detail and the gradual mental deterioration of Maitland, the crashed man. In our jaded 21st century, the metaphorical aspects are too worn, but the image of Maitland dragging his damaged leg through the cutting undergrowth of nettles, metal and tall grasses, searching for a way out, stays with me.
‘Friday’ is split into an autistic tramp and a traumatised young woman - but the main innovation comes as Maitland-Crusoe discovers the ruthless underside of his supposedly ‘enlightened’ self.
I thought the first bit of this book was a terrific re-setting of the desert-island genre into a modern, urban world of auto-madness. I wasn’t so keen on the second half, mainly because I struggled with the motivations and psychology of the other characters on the island. When everyone (including the protagonist by now) is disturbed or mad or sways constantly from one emotion to another, all the inconsistency makes it hard to care about them. I’ve felt this about Ballard before: his landscapes are much more exciting than his people…?
Extremely cleverly written, with short punchy chapters.
It might just have been this version of the eBook, but there are quite a few transpositional errors (perhaps due to OCR software?).
A few gripes: there’s a regular mangling of English and American English (e.g. car bonnet/hood), and a seeming obsession by the author for airport buses....
He meets his 'Friday's in the form of two outcasts surviving in a shelter on the island, 'their last hiding place, appropriately in the centre of this alienating city.'
Like the main character in Kobo Abe's 'The Woman in the Dunes', the architect tries to escape. But, when eventually he is free, he considers his escape as 'meaningless. Already he felt no real need to leave the island.'
J.G. Ballard has written a forceful portrait of man's solitude in a concrete city, illustrating violently Robert Frost's profoundly human sentence 'Every Man is an island'.
Not to be missed.