Review: Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

There’s a narcissistic part of my brain that mulls the AMA questions I’ll answer when I’m an established writer. Which authors have most inspired/influenced you? Bradbury, Poe, Crichton—and now, J.G. Ballard. I only read High-Rise because of Tom Hiddleston, but Ballard’s bizarre story obliterated that gorgeous man’s face/voice/everything from my brain by the story’s close (which is a testament to its strength). What captivated me about High-Rise is how concept-driven it is—how it becomes more intense as it swerves into implausibility. It’s hard for me to get behind books that eschew sensible plot/characters for the sake of a message, but I love Ballard’s voice and unpredictability. He sells ideas that shouldn’t work and brings them to life. Don’t we all hope to write this way?

Concrete Island begins quickly. Robert Maitland gets into a car accident (on page 1) and lands in a “concrete island” surrounded by embankments and roads:

Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Maitland saw that he had crashed into a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes. The apex of the island pointed towards the west and the declining sun, whose warm light lay over the distant television studios at White City. The base was formed by the southbound overpass that swept past seventy feet above the ground. Supported on massive concrete pillars, its six lanes of traffic were sealed from view by the corrugated metal splash-guards installed to protect the vehicles below. (12)

Maitland makes regular eye contact with passing drivers, but no one understands his pleas for help. What begins as a frustrating story about the bystander effect morphs into something darker when Maitland becomes obsessed with dominating the island. As surreal as the plot becomes, there’s a strange and consistent logic to Maitland’s quest.

Before reading, I wondered how this premise could carry a novel. How long could Maitland’s disappearance pass unnoticed? How long before a construction crew inspected the crash site? How could so many people miss signal fires? I didn’t understand how Ballard planned to stretch what should be a temporary condition into a full-length novel. Yet he does it—and brilliantly, too! Though the story is largely metaphorical, Ballard doesn’t neglect the surface level and creates a fascinating character in Maitland. Alone, Maitland comes to a quick and eerie realization:

“Maitland, poor man, you’re marooned here like Crusoe—If you don’t look out you’ll be beached here for ever…” (32)

I’m keeping this short because Concrete Island isn’t a book you should know much about before reading. It’s a simple situation that unfolds in a bizarre way.

Overall: 4.7 It’s weird, creepy, and occasionally vulgar, but so well written.

Translation: Read it. Ballard is 2/2 with me. Time to look for no. 3…

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