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Lachlan Liesfield dissects JG Ballard’s Concrete Island in this TBS Book Review. Overshadowed by his highly controversial Crash, Ballard’s Concrete Island offers much to those willing to commit.
One requires a healthy dose of cynicism to truly understand and accept Concrete Island’s position on the modern world. But if you can find it within you (or have it drawn out of you by the text itself), then Concrete Island is worth exploring.
Architect Robert Maitland is returning home from an uneventful conference, speeding down a freeway, soon finding himself crashing through the safety barriers and down into the traffic island below. In enormous pain from his injuries, he struggles to the road in the hope of finding a way out, but to no avail – only injuring himself further and trapping himself far beneath the road, and out of reach from civilisation. So begins Concrete Island.
Even within it’s opening pages, Ballard’s precise prose is already communicating his position. The direct feed of information to the reader reads like a police report filed long after the events have taken place, straightforward facts whose lack of flair seem to leave the opening of Concrete Island dry. But this is clearly intentional on Ballard’s behalf, whose descriptions of the traffic island Maitland finds himself trapped on grow into highly memorable locations of decrepit beauty. They contrast the safety in the almost standardised description of the world outside, with the wild freedom of the island within it.
Ballard’s other notable work, Crash, similarly toyed with the new pleasures we create from our modern technologies, and the melancholy atmosphere of the island creates its own sort of pleasure. Free from the trappings of modern life, Maitland is able to attempt to free himself from such dependencies and act on his own human instincts, traditional morals not withstanding in the face of survival.
Maitland’s acceptance of his life on the island comes awfully suddenly for a book whose time scale is little over a week, meaning Maitland’s fall can at times come across more as a plot necessity rather than a natural adaptation to his situation. Similarly, the lack of explanation that Ballard provides for his supporting characters might frustrate some readers, however, it serves the book far better than extended biographical pages ever could. Instead we learn only what Maitland himself comes to know, and it is in this way we grow to understand the conclusions he draws, effectively keeping us locked inside Maitland’s mind, as the characters themselves who are following his injuries.
Pacing, however, can be an issue for Concrete Island. While the first days pass fast enough in page count, the dragging speed at which events occur during them makes the opening chapters a slog, and could be a turn off for the more uncommitted who happen to pick the book up casually. Should they continue, Ballard’s novel becomes far more engrossing, and while not destined to become a classic as his controversial Crash, Concrete Island is still a worthwhile read, and a fascinating modern take on the classic “desert island” tale.