In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reappraises J. G. Ballard’s 1970s masterpiece
‘Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant.’ This remark by J. G. Ballard, who has a claim to being one of the most important English writers of the second half of the twentieth century, strikes at the heart of what drives his fiction. And although it’s not his most famous book, for me the remarkable tour de force that is Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island best demonstrates this.
Ballard has always struck me as a curious mixture of H. G. Wells and William Burroughs, in so far as he can be likened to anybody. Certainly, his novels and stories frequently have the clarity and simplicity of concept that we see in Wells’s fiction, just as the narratives driven by these concepts proceed to undo that simplicity by showing the complications that inevitably ensue.
In Ballard’s first four novels, published in the 1960s, the world is destroyed by catastrophe: by a freak wind (The Wind from Nowhere), by water (The Drowned World), by heat (The Drought), and by crystal (The Crystal World). In the 1970s novels, it is not some post-apocalyptic future but instead the here-and-now that is transformed into dystopia: Crash focuses on the link between sexual fetish and car accidents, High-Rise on the psychopathology of life in an urban tower block, and Concrete Island on what happens when a man, an architect named Robert Maitland, becomes ‘marooned’ on an island – a traffic island, that is, in London, on a busy motorway junction, after he crashes his car through a temporary barrier one afternoon.
(Over on the fansite Ballardian, Mike Bonsall has done some detective work and discovered the real-life Westway flyover which Ballard almost certainly had in mind. Fittingly, given Ballard’s interest in television, you can see the old BBC Television Centre at Wood Lane from the flyover. This flyover was also the place where the video for the Cool Notes’ 1985 song In Your Car was shot, which seems fitting given Ballard’s love of the car.)
It’s a deliciously straightforward idea, and writing a ‘Robinsonade’ (as such books are known) for the modern age plays wonderfully to Ballard’s strengths as a writer. As Martin Amis has observed, Ballard is not overly interested in human relationships – his dialogue is only ever purely functional – but perhaps no post-war English novelist has written better about human solitude. Maitland, being a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, starts off alone on his island: the only time he speaks is when he mimics the voices of his wife and mistress, imagining what they would say to him as he struggles to survive on water from his car, and the bottles of white Burgundy he had in the back.
Ballard is often regarded as odd because of his interest in the weird fetishes, hang-ups, and obsessions we have as human beings: being turned on by wounds received in car crashes, to offer the best-known example. But his fascination with our stranger fascinations, his perverse preoccupation with our perversions, is what makes him one of the most psychologically acute writers of the twentieth century. Right from the beginning of Concrete Island there is something odd about Maitland’s crash, as if it were not as accidental an ‘accident’ as we might have been led to believe by the book’s blurb: in due course we will learn that Maitland has a photograph of himself as a seven year-old boy on his desk at work (rather than a photograph of his son), because part of the married, thirtysomething father’s psyche yearns to get back to the solitude he enjoyed when he was younger.
Beyond all this, the need to be alone, as a near-contemporary of Ballard’s, Philip Larkin, once put it. Nobody comes to his rescue partly because he injures his leg while trying to flag down a passing car for help, but also because of the mess of his private life: because his wife knows he has a mistress and his mistress knows he is married, neither of them reports him as missing when he doesn’t come home because they simply assume he has chosen to spend the night with the other one.
In Concrete Island, Maitland’s solitude and lack of food and water, his injury and his withdrawal from society, rapidly lead to him growing mentally unstable. Around halfway through the novel, he asserts, ‘I am the island’. It’s as if Maitland has mated with the land, or at least the island: it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what is real and what is a product of Maitland’s disordered mind.
But then, as with Robinson Crusoe’s discovery of the footprint on his desert island, there’s a twist, and Maitland discovers he’s not alone on his concrete island. He meets Jane and Proctor, two social outcasts (a prostitute and an old circus acrobat who has learning difficulties) who are squatting in an old cinema on the island, and the three form an unlikely, and uneasy, alliance.
Here, too, there is something of the relationship between Crusoe the coloniser and Man Friday in Defoe’s novel: as Jane points out, Maitland is a successful man (she mischaracterises his profession as ‘businessman’), while Jane and Proctor are both part of the underclass, physically as well as socially out of the mainstream. Proctor’s way of communicating with Maitland, in short sentences of broken English, summons the idea of the successful Westerner trying to lord it over the locals in so many Robinsonades. Through this dynamic, Ballard makes a point about social class in post-war Britain: we are different, but Maitland’s predicament makes him the same as the ‘natives’. We are all just one car accident away from leaving civilisation.
Ballard once said that ‘I always suspected that eternity would look like Milton Keynes’, but I’ll forgive him for this quip against my hometown. In many ways, Milton Keynes is the ultimate Ballardian city, with its roundabouts (miniature concrete islands?), its modern architecture, and its strange air of unreality. If reality is neither real nor significant, then Concrete Island makes sense of the surreal chaos around us, transforming urban alienation into modern parable.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.