Concrete Island by J G Ballard

My mornings and evenings are a bit dark for a nicely lit photo of the book. Instead, here it is in a transparent bag, rather like a corpse being disposed of. There's something macabre about transparent shopping bags. Or does Fopp simply want its customers to have no hassle at airports? Click to enlarge.

My mornings and evenings are a bit dark for a nicely lit photo of the book in natural light. Instead, here it is in its original shopping bag, scanned forensically, as though a corpse found in a canal. Are transparent shopping bags macabre, or is it me? Or is it that some retailers simply want their customers to have no hassle at airports?
[Click to enlarge.]

Concrete Island is a story stripped down to the bare essentials that befit a tale about isolation bordering on alienation. Ballard himself draws a comparison, in his introduction, with Robinson Crusoe, insofar as there are islands ‘nearer to home’. He points to how Crusoe explores isolation with an abundance of resources. The obvious difference with Concrete Island’s privations is that Ballard’s idea of an island is deeply pessimistic.

Architecture divides the spaces occupied in the novel into two. The watery currents that cut the titular island off are the highways carrying fast-moving traffic. The novel’s protagonist, Maitland, is stranded there after careering off the road in an accident. Yet this island is no paradise. It’s a 200-yard triangle dotted with abandoned cars that are hidden in tall grasses. The steep muddy banks on the sides and a high chain-link fence at the end hamper his initial struggles to get off or raise the alarm. Then there are his crash injuries. Then there’s the constant downpours of rain. And as if that’s not enough, his scant supplies dwindle. His deterioration unsurprisingly turns his thoughts to mere survival and recovery as the hours turn to days.

As in many of Ballard novels, a civilised person is hurled into circumstances that regress them into a kind of savagery. I shan’t spoil the plot with any details about the company he finds himself in, nor how the social elements play out. It’s enough to say that the nature of society, again as with Ballard’s other work, has a curious (and realistic) tendency towards the arbitrary so that society is portrayed as the sum total of struggles between the individuals who happen to be there. There’s less violence than in his other novels on account of the tiny cast. The menace is supplied instead from the claustrophobia in managing the differences between each person’s investment in what escape or entrapment means to them.

I warmed to this novel’s cold minimalism. It fitted in with the brutalist architecture perfectly. There’s something basic, abstract, and discomforting about it that makes it, like High Rise, crudely enjoyable in a way that Ballard’s more sophisticated offerings don’t quite reach.

Concrete Island comes around on the secondhand market more occasionally than his better-known works, but having discussed the book with Ste J some time ago, I couldn’t resist getting my copy in FOPP’s 2-for-£5 deal recently.

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12 Responses to Concrete Island by J G Ballard

  1. roughghosts says:

    I have had this book for a few years now, your review makes me want to pull it out and put it in a more prominent location as the new year dawns. Thanks.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    I loved High Rise when I read it years ago and always meant to read Concrete Island as they both seem to go together. I find I do have to be in the right mood to read Ballard’s books though as his minimalist style can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.

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    • Jeff says:

      What the minimalism to Concrete Island misses out on is the messiness to High Rise. The bottle of sparkling wine bursting on a balcony perfectly condenses the descent into decadence and chaos. Concrete Island didn’t get that dark with its limited cast perhaps because the time-frame was too short to allow for sufficient psychological and social regression. The novel does a lot with very little though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Another Ballard I really must read. I have a copy and started it once but got distracted. Maybe I should make 2016 the year of trying to read more off the shelves!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff says:

      This is going to sound a bit strange, but I hit upon the idea recently of putting ebooks through text-to-speech and then generating the output as mp3s for my iPod, that way enabling commuter-reading when tired or too overloaded from computer screens. Not sure how long I could tolerate the robotic voice though.

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      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        Intriguing! I confess not to being a huge fan of audio books either – I guess I really love the printed word and the book as an object!

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  4. Ste J says:

    Rereading that post makes me cringe a bit, it needs a good editing. What other book did you pick up on the 2 for £5 bargain, which was nicely played by the way. My limited Ballard reading tends to lead me to the conclusion that we aren’t cut out for any of this type of life and I’m inclined to agree, however enjoying a book in the pub does make life seem oddly ‘doable’. Before I forget, I picked up a Stanislaw Lem book that may interest you called A Perfect Vacuum which I think will interest you…

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    • Jeff says:

      The other book was A Scanner Darkly.
      I can recommend the South Bank Show on Ballard, the video of which I’ve posted previously.
      Yes, I’ve come across Lem a few times but not read him. Perfect Vacuum looks similar in conception to Misreadings by Eco. I look forward to your upcoming review!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ste J says:

        Misreadings was a great book and was sold to me on the strength that this was a book for the intelligentsia which I believe I read in a review whilst surfing the web for all of Eco back catalogue. There were some clever stories in that so now I;m doubly intrigued with Lem.

        The South Bank Show has been in my favourites for a bit, I will get around to reading it now the calm post Christmas has finally hit.

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  5. In the past, I generally found Ballard a struggle, but a rewarding struggle. Currently deciding which of his novels might make my 2016 TBR list, it’s betweeen ‘Concrete Island’ and ‘High Rise’…

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