Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

concrete island

I know this is cheating but here’s the description from the back cover of J.G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island.

Robert Maitland, is driving home from his London office when a blow-out sends his Jaguar hurtling out of control.  Smashing through a temporary barrier he finds himself, dazed and disoriented, on a traffic island below three converging motorways.  But when he tries to climb the embankment or flag-down a passing car for help it proves impossible–and he finds himself imprisoned on the concrete island.

Maitland is injured from the accident which keeps him from serious attempts to escape the island for several days.  His car is in a sort of clearing surrounded by bushes, where several abandoned cars have been left to rust.  There’s also a couple of dilapidated old buildings on the island including an abandoned theatre, all of them left to decay when the three highways were built around them years earlier.

No one can see him because two sides of the island are walled and the third is below a steep embankment, too steep for the injured Maitland to climb.  Starving, freezing, he is on his own as much as Robinson Crusoe was.

A few days into his ordeal a Man Friday of a sort shows up in the form of a neurotic runaway teenager and her much older senile companion, a former boxer.  They take care of Maitland, up to a point, but she won’t help him leave and the boxer only does what the girl tells him to do.

It’s a perfect confluence of Ballard’s themes: cars, concrete landscapes, social isolation.

I found Concrete Island worked quite well as both an adventure story and a piece of social commentary.  I think we’ve all driven past similar islands, many of us have lived in places that felt like they were surrounded by highways.  Many neighborhoods in the world really are cut off from everyone else by them.  They are the new “tracks”, with a good side and a bad side.   Robert Maitland is confined by the motor-ways in a poverty-stricken “island,” late 20th century city-planning made manifest.

Once the girl and the boxer arrive, the novel becomes the story of a strange power struggle between the three, mainly between Maitland and the girl, Jane.  She supports him and exploits him while he tries to get her to show him the way off of the island for the longest time, before finally accepting that he really doesn’t want to leave, at least not with her help.

Far from using this girl to help him escape from the island, he was using her for motives he had never before accepted, his need to be freed from his past, from his childhood, his wife and friends, with all of their affections and demands, and to rove for ever within the empty city of his own mind.

Maitland’s alienation takes an extreme form, one that he only becomes aware he wants after several days on the island.  That he is surrounded by people speeding past, busy with their own lives, makes him all the more isolated and alienated.  It’s a perfect metaphor for a certain view of modern living, alone on an island in a sea of traffic.

I was impressed with Concrete Island.  I expect I’ll be reading it again someday.

And I will never look at those little islands within the highways quite the same way again.

6 thoughts on “Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

  1. Oh, that’s what is in Concrete Island? That’s brilliant, the funniest idea I have ever heard form Ballard. How great that it works as a novel, too, not just a concept.

    Since we were discussing great Kipling stories a while ago, I will mention that certain aspects of this story have a suspicious resemblance to an early Kipling story title “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes.”

    1. I’ll look for the Kipling story. I think Ballard is playing around with elements from several stories/novels here. I saw elements of Robinson Crusoe, a bit of Lord of the Flies. He’s working in familiar territory and having a very good time with it, too.

  2. That is a very interesting idea! I have to start reading more Ballard – have a couple on my TBR pile. Haven’t read any since I was about 20.

    1. I admit, this is the first time I really had fun with a Ballard novel. It has got me interesting in trying some more, even a few that I gave up on the first time around.

  3. James, does he just drop out of his life? Does anyone notice he has gone missing? Or is the story completely from his POV so you don’t know?

  4. It’s from Maitland’s POV so we really don’t know. But things in his life were at a point where no one would miss him for a few weeks should he disappear. The events of Concrete Island take place in about a week’s time.

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