BOOK (1974)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


Concrete Island
by J.G. Ballard
Jonathan Cape

Regarded as one of the most significant postwar British writers, J.G. Ballard has remained both popular and controversial since his death in 2009. During his lifetime he was lauded by his literary peers and even had one of his novels turned into a Steven Spielberg movie (Empire of the Sun), while at the same time producing material that at once fascinated, shocked and even disgusted (Crash).

'I take a perverse delight in provoking people,' he once said, with a wry smile.

Never one to compromise either himself or his art, Ballard spent his life 'obsessed by the taste of cruelty' as well as 'the innate beauty of life'. One only has to read his epic poem-cum-manifesto What I Believe to get a sense of his myriad fascinations, from motorways, abandoned hotels, wildlife, scrap yards, children and disease to the Empire State Building, Max Ernst and rundown estates.

Ballard's work also spans genres, from semi-autobiography and neo-realism to science fiction and dystopian nightmare, and throughout his near 50-year career he explored complex shifts in contemporary society well before they had come into the collective consciousness - from global warming and the rise of the cult of celebrity to rampant mass consumerism.

For Ballard, humans 'constantly brutalise themselves in the endless quest for excitement and sensation', and this idea is central to his 1974 novel Concrete Island. A young, wealthy architect named Robert Maitland leaves his office in his shiny Jaguar and careens off the motorway, crashing onto a patch of abandoned land that lies beneath the overlapping roads. He is lost, injured, abandoned and somewhat deranged, and there is a sense that he may have orchestrated, or at least revels in, his own downfall.

His marriage is in freefall (he constantly shouts his wife's name in despair), while his attempts to escape are depressingly futile, despite the realisation that he really isn't as lost or abandoned as it appears. Drunk on the expensive burgundy from the boot of his car and hobbling on an injured leg, he explores his new domain in a state of shock and awe, soon realising that he's not alone.

Maitland gradually surrenders to his fate and the machinations of his two fellow inhabitants of 'the island', yet by the end he is planning his escape and attempting to regain control. But there can be no resolution, and Ballard offers none. The novel can be read as an allegory of alienation in the modern world, one that explores the difficulty many of us face in the media age wherethe line between what is real and what is false is blurred.