20 Books of Summer #2 – a modern day Robinson Crusoe?

Concrete Island by J G Ballard

Ballard’s slim novel from 1973 is his own bleak take on Robinson Crusoe being marooned on a desert island.  However, this being Ballard, he has found a way of subverting Crusoe by marooning his protagonist in the middle of a very busy world. Concrete Island is a controlled and concise exercise in isolation, alienation and survival. It begins thus:

The Westway Interchange, 1970 (wikipedia)

‘Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards 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 nearside tyre.’

He crashes through the wooden trestles that mark the not yet completed safety barrier, going down an embankment, ending up in a scrubby area between the roadways.  He is lucky, only his pride is injured, although the shock has drained the blood from his face temporarily. He is rueful about the crash:

… he invariably drove well above the speed limit. Once inside a car some rogue gene, a strain of rashness, overran the rest of his usually cautious and clear-minded character. Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost wilfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalisation.

He climbs back up the slope to get help. But no-one will stop for him. Desperate, he ventures out too far and is clipped by a vehicle, and is flung back down the embankment. Now, he is injured. Now he is stuck down in the island between the roads.

Later, armed with a broomstick he finds nearby for a crutch, and anaesthetised by wine from the crate of bottles in his boot, he sets out to explore his confines, knowing he can’t get up the embankment again with his injured leg. But there is no way out for him, the third side of the island between the roads ends in a tall wire fence with a scrapyard beyond. Hungry, he devours the remnants of a sandwich thrown from a car window – scavenging will be his lot until someone finds him – surely someone will see the crashed trestles.  No-one comes and he continues his explorations, finding the ruined remains of buildings that had existed there before the road was built. He soon realises that he might not be alone after all – there are signs of human habitation…

Ballard gives us a protagonist for whom we have little initial sympathy – the well-heeled executive who is cheating on his wife. However, our feelings about Maitland keep getting pulled one way or another as he goes about surviving in his new habitat. This being Ballard, Maitland’s behaviour soon becomes animalistic for in such an environment, it is dog eat dog and only the fittest will survive, violence may be required, However, Maitland does yearn to see his young son and his wife Catherine again; his mistress Helen becoming an inconvenience to be discarded in his fevered mind.

The author shows how easy it is to fall through the cracks and become invisible even when you’re figuratively surrounded by people.  Despite the isolation of his predicament, will Maitland be able to survive alone until he can escape?  As John Donne said:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man’s death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

John Donne, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in my Sicknes – Meditation XVII (1624)

Ballard’s economical way with words ensures that the reader is carried along with the narrative in this powerful tale which resonates with our modern lives so much more than Robinson Crusoe ever did. Newer editions of the paperback include a rather good introduction by Neil Gaiman in addition to Ballard’s own Authors Note that prefaces the text. (9/10)

NB: If you’re interested in reading more about the possibilities for Ballard’s ‘concrete island’ do visit The Ballardian for a full discussion of potential locations!

Source: Own copy      J G Ballard, Concrete Island (1973) Harper paperback, 144 pages.

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13 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #2 – a modern day Robinson Crusoe?

  1. Elle says:

    This is a really interesting comparison (Concrete Island to Crusoe) because to me, Crusoe is all about the ways in which man inevitably tames and subdues his environment with the use of reason and technology; Concrete Island, by contrast, seems to be about the ways in which human reason and technology (which enable the creation of massive motorway interchanges) can develop to the point where an individual is subdued, sidelined, and even destroyed. (Does Maitland make it out alive? Knowing Ballard, I’m guessing not.)

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Gosh, this is a brave read! I don’t think I could face it, but it’s a very interesting concept. It also reminds me that I STILL can’t remember the title of the non-fiction book I read (twice!) about the building of the Westway and the way it divided communities, which is driving me to distraction.

  3. AnnaBookBel says:

    I just adore Ballard – although I’ve only read a handful. At only 150 pages, maybe you should give it another go – the way he brings in the ruins of what was there before was particularly super.

  4. Jonathan says:

    So, why doesn’t he just use his mobile phone to call for help? 🙂 I often wonder how these types of stories could play out in a modern age but it would be quite easy I suppose: lose or break the phone, battery has run out and no way to charge it etc. and then the protoganist is back in the same situation as the character in the ’70s. I keep meaning to read this one as it really appeals to me. Have you read High-Rise—I remember really liking that one. I haven’t seen the film yet.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You should read this one – I don’t want to spoil it more for you though. Loved High Rise – I must re-read it after having seen the film which was also very good indeed, very strong visually.

  5. Max Cairnduff says:

    I’m a Ballard fan myself, but oddly have never read this (though I have a copy). Doubly oddly since I grew up very near the Westway. Thanks for reminding me of it, and I agree with Elle that the Crusoe comparison is interesting.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ballard makes the comparison himself in his authors note which precedes the novel, but of course he subverts it in his own special way. Definitely worth reading.

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