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.