Through the Crash Barrier:
A Reading of J.G. Ballard's Concrete_Island
by L. J. Hurst
Crash was about moving traffic violations, Ballard's subsequent novel, Concrete Island, set on a derelict piece of road junction, threatened to be much more passive. "A prose poem in the manner of Rimbaud on the scenery of the M4 and A40 as they approach London, Heathrow, Western Avenue, Harlington" *1 was Anthony Quinton's description of Crash in 1973. A year later the first sentences of Concrete Island seemed to indicate a different choice of narrative style: "Soon after three o'clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Rober Maitland was drving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yeards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front near-side tyre" (page 7)
The omniscient objective narrator could have seen and measured it all. David Pringle wrote "In recent novels Ballard has also been making larger concessions to social realism. That is to say, in Concrete Island and High-Rise he is trying to become more of a novelist" (Pringle p50, emphasis in original), while Peter Brigg wrote "A detailed realism of scene is, of course, one of the aspects of surreal presentation, but Ballard seems to be angling closer to actual realism in these novels" (Brigg page 69).
Reviews which appeared when the novel was first published tended to see it more as an allegory than realism - no one can be cut off, injured and deserted in the middle of a road junction they implicitly reasoned, therefore this was an allegory of alienation. Ian Watson saw a link with the work of Samuel Becket *2.
These readings may all be true. However, there are strands of the novel and implications which have been ignored. They are worth examining.
Peter Brigg explicitly states that Concrete Island and High-Rise have "omniscient narrators". It is the disproving of this, and the proof of that disproof which help to raise the importance of the novel in the Ballard canon: it may be one of Ballard's most successful experiments in narration. In discussions of Ballards's narrative experiments - the advertisements he placed in magazines, the show of crashed cars at the ICA, the condensed novels which first appeared in The_Terminal_Beach are then held to have exploded in The_Atrocity_Exhibition, so that much later works such as "The Index" and "The Sixty Second Zoom" are no more than fragments. However, it is quite clear that Ballard has made other explorations of narrative, and Concrete Island is one of his newfound and new won lands in that exploration. While David Pringle sees the third person narrator of High-Rise as Ballard himself (Pringle page 50), the third person narrator of Concrete Island is one of the characters - Robert Maitland - and Maitland shapes everything in the book.
The depth of textual study required to demonstrate the truth of this claim is some indication of how cleverly Ballard hid the fact that this is not an objective, realist novel. Whether this was Ballard's intention is neither here nor there, it simply helps to reinforce the truth of that dictum of D.H. Lawrence - "Never trust the teller, trust the tale". The creation is greater than the creator.
From the specificity of its opening, Concrete Island becomes less clear and more impressionist as it goes on. Although only a triangle of land between two roads and the wire fence of a scrap dump, its topography remains indefinate, despite references to traffic passing, bridges, distant landmarks. When Jane Sheppard finally leaves the island, Maitland watching her "realized that there was no secret pathway - she walked straight up the slope, picking her way along a succession of familiar foot-holds" (page 174). Much earlier Maitland had gone about the island -
"he moved through the grass, looking around calmly at those features of the island he had come to know so well during the past days ... These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body. He gestured towards them, trying to make a circuit of the island so that he could leave there sections where they belonged. He would leave his right leg at the point of his crash, his bruised hands impaled upon the steel fence. He would place his chest where he had sat against the concrete wall. At each point a small ritual would signify the transfer of obligation from himself to the island.
"He spoke aloud, a priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body.
"'I am the island'" (pages 70-71)
Yet if he had failed to find the secret of the missing pathway he had failed to make the island one with himself. His sympathetic magic had not worked. However, what has already happened is that Maitland has separated his body and his mind textually.
In the first twenty-five pages of the novel Maitland crashes and is injured, attempts to leave the island during the rush-hour and is knocked back onto the wasteground suffering far worse injuries. All this damage is externalised - for every pain and sense experience he has there is a physical cause beyond himself described explicitly:
"During the few seconds before his crash he clutched at the whiplashing spokes of the steering wheel, dazed by the impact of the chromium window pillar against his head" (page 7)
"As he steadied himself agaist the roof the hot cellulose stung his hand" (page 10)
"The sharp smell of anti-freeze and hot rust cut at Maitland's nostrils as he bent down and examined the wheel housing" (page 10)
"His right hand smarted from a passing blow. The skin had been torn by a piece of sharp windshield or wing-mirror trim" (page 18)
Most of these descriptions even imply an action on the part of the inanimate object (the pillar against his head rather than the other way round, something stings him, smells cut at his nostrils, even "torn" implies a tearer).
Then, as we moe towards the accident these verbs of pathetic fallacy disappear even while the cause remains clearly outside him: "a cold euphoria was coming over him. He assumed that this light-headedness reveled the first symtons of carbon monoxide poisoning" (p20) Then finally after the accident Maitland comes to on the embankment: "For the first time since his accident Maitland's head felt clear. The bruises on his temple and upper jaw, like the injuries to his legs and abdomen, were defined and localised, leaving his mind free" (page 23)
The freeing of his mind means the end of pain, and the end of the physical causes of pain. Maitland spends the rest of his time on the island partially crippled, eventually recuperating to a flawed ambulance, but his mind is never the same.
"the whole city was now asleep, part of an immense unconscious Europe, while he himself crawled about on a forgotten traffic island like the nightmare of this slumbering continent" (page 25)*3 and as Maitland thinks of his wife
"in some obscure way he was blaming her for his plight, for the pain in his injured leg, and for the cold night air that lay over his body like a damp shroud" (page 25)
Unlike the earlier stings, cuts and tears this experience of coldness is described as a simile and there is a connection implied through the metaphor of his wife as the cause. Despite the explicit naming of her the standards of causality which have been defined in the first two chapters of the book mean that we infer much less blame on her part. (Whether blame is to be attributed anywhere else is another matter). If Concrete Island is a novel of consciousness then, although it may have been Ballard's intention to present the full facts about the man, and what he was really like, the man may also have been so multifaceted that no clear defence or attack could be possibly made. Maitland's accident may have been accidental.
The introduction of similes, particularly the first one quoted, "like the nightmare of this slumbering continent", must reinforce the idea that this is the mind of Robert Maitland. While the residents of Europe slept they were unaware of his pain - it caused them no trouble. Only when the novel appeared could this be a nightmare they might experience, and engrossed in their reading they might experience nothing else, just as the sleeper knows only the bad dream filling the night.
Several times, both as described by the narrator and in Maitland's conversation, Maitland's visions are those of a spectator rather than a participant. In the early pages he is described: "Walking about through the grass, he felt himself almost lightheaded, like a man who has just witnessed some harrowing event, a motorway pile-up or public execution ..."(page 11, ellipsis in original) and later, Maitland says "These last four days have been very strange - like visiting an insane asylum and seeing yourself sitting on a bench" (page 117)*4
Although this appears to deny that Maitland's experience is internalised, it does show the identity of the narrator's voice and that of Maitland. Furthermore, it is clear that both misunderstand the situation in the same way - Maitland has been in a "harrowing event", his actions may well be insane, yet he can state the truth even when not recognising that that is what it is.
The first of these two passages help provide information indicating another element strong in all of Ballard's fiction: prescience, foreknwoledge and foreshadowing. While Maitland has not yet seen a public execution, before the novel ends he will have seen Proctor garrotted and killed unwittingly by council workmen. The effect is little different.
The prescient view also is used with some ambiguity in dealing with Maitland's ability to escape from the isalnd. Early on, Maitland has this knowledge: "Already he knew that he would never be able to climb the embankment, but he tried to drag himself up the slope" (page 25)
Later on, though, in conversation with Jane Sheppard she says:
"'You know, you could have got away from here, if you'd wanted to.'
"'Right at the beginning'" (page 116) (that is, between the crash and injury to his leg)
If Maitland had waited until the end of the rush hour and walked along the road he might have escaped injury and reached help but events did not turn out like that. His character was such that he had to make haste and was confirmed in his captivity. In the final ironies of the closing paragraphs of the novel the description of Maitland is clearly false: "He would stay there until he could escape by his own efforts" (page 175)
and then "When he had eaten it would be time to rest and to plan his escape from the island" (page 176) (This is the last sentence of the novel)
Maitland has fallen into procrastination; actions that delay or prevent him from escaping, and which replace action with pseudo-action or inaction. Two things of great interest show themselves in the paragraphs separating these two sentences above. "He felt light-headed from hunger, but calm and in control of himself. He would collect food from the perimeter fence - and perhaps, as a gesture in the direction of the old tramp, leave a token portion beside his grave" (page 176) Firstly, light-headedness is now caused by the something abstract and internal - hunger - not physical and external as before. Secondly, the actions that mark his procrastination are the introduction of something new in his world. Maitland's actions in the past have lead him to the island; his actions now must stop him leaving it. "'It was to these extreme points that Ballard instinctively journeyed, the poles of mental inaccessibility, where normal and abnormal met on apotropaic neutral ground' (Brian Aldiss Billion_Year_Spree chapter 11)
"'Apotropaism' is the magical or religious art of warding off evil by charms, incantations or ritual performances. Whether or not that is what Ballard is up to, his fiction is clearly a fiction of extremities, in which the horrible is commonplace" (Scholes and Rabkin pages 88-89) After arriving after the crash Maitland has performed a small ritual transferring obligation from himself to the island, now the rituals restrict him. Maitland himself is the cause and agent of his imprisonment.
Maitland, perhaps, was also the agent of his own arrival - he had been driving badly so that he could not cope with the original blow-out which lead to his crash landing. This in turn leads to an interesting allusion: Peter Brigg has pointed out that "the novel mimics a long tradition of island stories, stretching from Robinson_Crusoe to Pincher_Martin (Brigg p73), but the triangle of characters surely have older echoes - Shakespeare's The_Tempest. Jane Sheppard is Miranda, and Proctor is Caliban. But what is Maitland? David Pringle says "In Concrete Island, the 'king' is entirely missing, although it could be argued that Maitland takes on many of the aspects of this role himself, especially when he callously subdues the tramp Proctor and forces the latter to carry him on his shoulders" (Pringle p48).
David Pringle sees the 'king' as a Ballardian archetype, along with the 'lamia' and the 'jester'. In the case of Concrete Island, though, Maitland is surely far more than a role or archetype? What Ballard managed to do was merge opposites - in a direct allusion to The_Tempest Maitland is both Prospero, true Duke of Milan and sometime king of the island, the magician who weaves the island into existence and brings his usurping brother to justice before him, and he is also Antonio, that deceiving brother, the false Duke of Milan who must give way to the truth and justice. He is the man who brings and the man who is brought to the island.
Where The_Tempest, though, is a comedy ending with justice and resolution of troubles Concrete Island can only end with Maitland's resolution of the problem as he sees it (and that is a changing perception). To an alienated man like Maitland the resolution is one which can be perceived as finding happiness in the overspill of a swill dump and a bed of rags in an air-raid shelter.
Far from being a dry novella Concrete Island is
something rich and strange. Not only can it
be read in ways already known, there are many more depths, strands and
cadences to it than have
yet been realised. If a work like this, regarded as minor within the
canon, can have that depth,
what might other works contain?
1. Quoted on the dust jacket of Concrete Island from a review in The_Sunday_Telegraph
2. See contemporary reviews by Ian Watson and Peter Linnett reprinted in Goddard and Pringle
3. An echo here of both Yeats' "Second Coming" and a re-vision of Dali - see, for instance, "Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of a New Man" in Dali edited by David Larkin with an introduction by J.G. Ballard (Pan Books 1974)
4. It was the sight of a catatonic idiot in an asylum and the thought "That which he is I might become" which drove the American psychologist William James into his mental breakdown.
J.G.Ballard Concrete Island (Jonathan Cape 1974)
Peter Brigg J.G.Ballard (Starmont 1985)
James Goddard and David Pringle J.G.Ballard The_First_Twenty_Years (Brans Head Books 1976)
David Pringle Earth_Is_The_Alien_Planet (Borgo Press 1979)
Robert Scholes and Eric S Rabkin Science_Fiction History:Science:Vision (O.U.P 1977)
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© L J Hurst 2006