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Crusoe in Concrete: J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island

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. Read the rest of this entry

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Reviewing the Future: Will Self’s The Book of Dave

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a dystopian novel about a new religion

Toxic masculinity. Patriarchy. Incel. Words like these are all over the internet of late, describing a perceived rise in misogynistic behaviours and attitudes among young men growing up in Britain, America, and elsewhere. Coupled with this is the worryingly small percentage of people – women as well as men – who self-identify as ‘feminists’ (just 7% of Britons, according to one survey). Could the utopian dream of gender equality, which appeared to be making some headway as the millennium came into sight, be retreating ever further into the distance?

One novelist who has explored such a question is Will Self. The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future (2006) reflects current anxieties surrounding the role of the father in a postmillennial world, issues pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the clash between altruism and self-interest. Religion, too, is a central theme: The Book of Dave projects the present-day fear and anger of the titular father-protagonist, Dave Rudman, into a future vision of London in which Dave’s ‘Book’ – written with the sole purpose of providing moral instruction for his son – has been taken up as a sacred text by Londoners dwelling in a neomedieval postdiluvian world five centuries hence. Read the rest of this entry

Richard Jefferies’ ‘Dystopian’ Vision: After London

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle visits a futuristic London that is decidedly medieval

Richard Jefferies, who appears to have been the first person to use the phrase ‘wild life’ to describe the natural world in 1879, is one of England’s greatest ever nature writers. But what is less well-known is that he was also a novelist. If his novels are recalled, it tends to be his book Bevis, a tale featuring a group of young boys who play games and build things and otherwise amuse themselves among the natural world, which is mentioned. Far less celebrated is his work of dystopian fiction, After London, which was published in 1885. The original title of Bevis was going to be After London, suggesting that the two novels have an affinity; but After London offers something starkly different. Ten years before H. G. Wells published his far more famous book The Time Machine, Jefferies was predicting a time in which London had reverted to pre-industrial greenery, much like the London of 802,701 in Wells’s novella has become a vast garden.

After London is set after some great cataclysmic event (an unspecified environmental disaster, such as a flood) that has destroyed the industrial Victorian London that Richard Jefferies knew. As with The Time Machine, the landscape (especially for a nature-lover like Jefferies) appears utopian while the people mark this future world out as a dystopia: although the chimneys and factories of the modern city have vanished to be replaced by idyllic woodland and pasture, the people of this future world have Read the rest of this entry