Review: Concrete Island

concrete_island_coverThere’s a narcissistic part of my brain that mulls the AMA questions I’ll answer when I’m a famous author. 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 to the implausible. 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 his car 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 the novel’s 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 about a simple situation that unfolds in a bizarre way; it’s all about the little turns and surprises.

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…

Review: High-Rise

high-rise_coverI’m posting out of order. I have in-progress reviews, but I’m coming off a book high and I’d rather blog about J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. It’s a trippy, bizarre, downhill slide of a book with spurts of absurdist humor. I’m partial to weird books that are well-written and Ballard spins a tight tale about a high-rise populated with affluent professionals whose class struggle grows increasingly animalistic. The narrative rotates to follow three main characters: Richard Wilder, an occupant of the 2nd floor and member of the high-rise’s “lower” class; Dr. Robert Laing, a 25th floor occupant; and Anthony Royal, the architect on the top (40th) floor. As the building degrades, sharp lines of blacked-out floors divide the classes and Wilder leads raids to the upper floors. Laing and Royal begin their own expeditions and carve out niches for their own desires.

From the first line, the reader senses something is amiss:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

The increasingly strange and violent events are portrayed in a neutral tone as though everything that happens might be considered natural given the setting. The high-rise is a cleverly built luxury building that includes a supermarket, two swimming pools, a school, and a restaurant. Despite its amenities and professional occupants, it plays host to a number of small irritants:

[T]he previous six months had been a period of continuous bickering among his neighbours, of trivial disputes over the faulty elevators and air-conditioning, inexplicable electrical failures, noise, competition for parking space and, in short, that host of minor defects which the architects were supposed to have designed out of these over-priced apartments. The underlying tensions among the residents were remarkably strong, damped down partly by the civilized tone of the building, and partly by the obvious need to make this huge apartment block a success. (Loc 219)

These inconveniences are quickly tied to class and placement within the building as the lower and upper floors find new ways to inflict greater annoyances upon the other. Their squabbles are petty and make little sense at first. All of the high-rise occupants are successful, but the more successful occupants live on higher floors. Floor numbers become a stand-in for class as the residents begin raiding, barricading, and shuffling around the building in search of new, higher units. Through the first half of the book, I didn’t care much for the premise as it implies that everyone in the building is possessed by a similar mindset and corruption. Who are these people? Ballard offers a rationale, but it feels thin:

By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress any kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology. (Loc 508)

It’s not immediately clear how the residents are “free” to swing by their baser urges. Wilder, Laing, and Royal all have their motivations scrutinized in their respective sections, but I can’t get an understanding of the other people in the building. Many of them maintain contact with the real world for quite some time (the raids and madness stop during business hours to allow commuters to leave for their day jobs before returning to the insanity at night). Why do they remain as living conditions deteriorate into anarchy? But then, as the book became more stylized (lip stick and red wine are repurposed as warpaint), I felt my plausibility questions drifting away. Ballard’s world does have rules and there’s a method to the high-rise induced madness. As the book swerves into the unreal, it critiques technology, consumerism, and idleness.

Several of the book jacket blurbs liken High-Rise to Lord of the Flies, but this overlooks the fact that anyone can leave the high-rise whenever they please. These people aren’t on an island and the book is more disturbing for it. High-Rise is about a big, shiny building filled with grubby people and it’s surprisingly worth reading.

Overall: 4.8

Translation: Bump it up your queue. If you don’t say “WTF” at the end, please, let me know.