Book Review: “Concrete Island” by JG Ballard
It’s about a guy who crashes off a motorway onto a bit of waste ground. He is injured and can’t attract attention to get rescued. The book explores his various escape attempts and strategies, and in doing so the writer highlights the isolation of modern living.
The character, Maitland has a wife and son. He also has a mistress; so when he crashes out of modern life, he knows that one will assume he is with the other, and so his disappearance will not be noticed. His becomes aware that his lifestyle at work – of having business trips and meetings – would mean that his colleagues would not notice his absence either. By landing in the middle of nowhere, he realizes that his existence was of little consequence to the people with whom he spent his life.
The novel is very much like a “Robinson Crusoe” story, or like the movie “Castaway”. He sets a fire to try to attract attention. He writes messages for people to see. He finds ways to sustain himself; first by drinking some of the wine that he had in the boot of his car, and later by scavenging.
The turning point of the novel is when he discovers he is not alone on the island. There are two other people who live there: one is too afraid to leave; the other leaves every night and returns with supplies. One is male; the other is female. Both are damaged individuals who have little interest in Maitland’s desire to get back to civilization.
Throughout the novel there is a suggestion that perhaps isolation is preferable to society, as he reflects that most “of the happier moments of his life had been spent alone”.
Maitland suffers a fever, and at the end of the chapter of that name:
He spoke aloud, a priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body.
“I am the island.”
This identification of the self with the setting recurs throughout the novel and these ideas work in parallel. Maitland seeks dominion over the island and as he does so, he has mastery over himself. He is profoundly lost, and then finds ways to become strong and in charge of his destiny.
I would like to read the novel again to try to improve my understanding of the other two characters. Jane was a woman using the island as refuge from guilt. Proctor was a brain-damaged ex-trapeze-artist who was blind. There HAS to be some symbolism in there I’m not getting. I wondered if they were meant to be some kind of inverse Adam and Eve in an inverse Eden – or if they were some kind of extreme characterizations of femininity and masculinity – or if they were meant to be just examples of individuals who were a paradoxical mix of weaknesses and strengths. The three inhabitants did have a spell of cooperation, symbiosis and interdependency – but hardly society. So, I am not sure what those characters represented.
Overall, I enjoyed this. For a static setting and limited characters there was enough happening to keep the momentum going. It was interesting to see the character go from certainty of rescue, to despair, to apathy and finally to strength and indifference.
I look forward to reading more by JG Ballard.