Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Concrete Island - J G Ballard

After the intensity of Crash, this book feels very low key. Ballard has returned to the simplicity of style and structure found in his earlier novels. Indeed, this feels more akin to those in some ways. Yet it is also clearly a thematic sequel (the middle of three works dealing with the brutalising effect of the modern world). The car and its servicing architecture provide the setting for this story.

Maitland, an architect, loses control of his car on the urban Motorway after a blow out. His car careers off the road and down an embankment into a large triangle of ground completely surrounded by busy roads. Concussed he climbs back up to the road and after attempting to flag down a passing car is hit and thrown back down the slope onto the island.

Stranded and injured, he encounters the other inhabitants of this isolated patch of ground; fighting for survival and a way out. Possibly. Because in this location (a patch of ground now overgrown but concealing the remains of houses, a church, a cinema) Ballard has found the perfect metaphor for the embattled mind. Surrounded by the rush and noise of the harsh, machine led modern world, Maitland retreats into this starveling patch of land full of ruins and the kind of flora one associates with war zones and bomb sites.

Empty and mostly dead, Maitland nonetheless seems to find it preferable to the ‘real’ world. He plans all the while to escape, yet seems reluctant to leave. He works harder to dominate the others who live there (aspects of his own self) and enshrines himself in a makeshift temple constructed of parts ripped from crashed cars. Perhaps there is even an element of autobiography here, but I would guess it is unconscious.

Overshadowed as it is by its predecessor, this novel rarely receives the praise it deserves. It is a tightly written, highly concentrated glimpse into the workings of the mind; yet manages to look outward as well, working as a commentary on the kind of society that has so many cracks and dark underplaces that it is possible for people to disappear completely and never be found, let alone missed or mourned.

If you are going to call anything ‘literary’ fiction, this is it. And it puts a stinger under the wheels of the clanky old mobile home of all the milk-and-water, self-obsessed, middle-class maunderings of what passes for ‘literary’ fiction these days.