500 words on Concrete Island: Isolation and domination
So I got back into writing essays which if you knew me during secondary school English lessons (or, indeed, at all) must come as more than a small surprise. Yet here we are, with my newfound an appreciation for literary analysis and a whole bloomin unnecessary and unsolicited essay to show for it. Been reading so many good books recently but they've been pretty challenging without the framework on an english lesson to help understand them, so here's me trying to figure out how I feel about Concrete Island, and not just how I feel about the name (CONCRETE – isn’t it just a great word?). More importantly, I wanted to figure out what it does, how it achieves it and WHY it chooses to do this. I haven’t written an essay in well over a year, so please excuse the shiteness and informality of this rather vain attempt. Also this is so not 500 words long. Oops.
Concrete Island is the 1974 novel by author JG Ballard, in which a man finds himself trapped on a traffic island after a car crash. A follow-up to his seminal 1973 shocker Crash, it may initially seem to be an almost direct continuation of the latter, from the exploration of the way modern technology warps our psychologies to the plot-inducing car crash and the protagonist named Robert. (Side note – the name Robert is a firm favourite of Ballard’s, so much so that every book I've read of his revolves around a Robert and I am now hesitant to read Crystal World in fear that the protagonist may not be named as such). However, Concrete Island actually takes its cues from earlier ideas and literary works – notably Robinson Crusoe – to hone in on fears and desires that gripped mankind long before we learned to build motorways and traffic islands.
At the beginning of the novel, Ballard’s protagonist Maitland is left in poor physical state after his car crashes onto the traffic island. He expends all his energy on immediately trying to find a way off and back home to his family and his mistress. The efforts are incessant, exhausting every possible idea (and sometimes, the reader’s patience) as Maitland works hard to convince the us, and himself, of the honesty in his desire to escape. And for a good portion of the book it is easy to believe Maitland’s efforts are genuine. Yes there is common sense, but it is also through aversion on the reader’s part, a hope that if we were placed in the same situation we would work just as hard to return to loved ones, to real life, that the discrepancies in Maitland’s narrative are hidden. Ballard never does quite let you settle in to this comfort though, and while the efforts and displays of machismo may be applauded, the seed of disbelief is sown within the first few pages. There are various missed opportunities for getting help, yet Maitland only reassures himself with excuses when these fall through. Eventually Maitland’s vain attempts to ‘escape’ the island seem almost solely for the reader’s benefit; the buzzword ‘escape’ rings hollower and hollower as the pages fly by and the notion of leaving slips further from his – and our – minds.
Instead, a portrait is painted of a man who doesn’t really desire to leave the island at all. A high-flying architecture exec juggling a family and a mistress, Maitland shies away from attachment. His romantic situation is thus to allow him the greatest degree freedom, later serving to ensure neither partner will be concerned by his disappearance to the island. Indeed, early on we are told ‘most of his happier moments in life had been spent alone’, underscoring Maitland’s comfort in his current predicament, while also exploring a wider cultural desire. As Ballard himself outlines in the introduction, ‘the day-dream of being marooned on a desert island still has enormous appeal, however small our chances of actually finding ourselves stranded on a coral atoll in the Pacific’. Who hasn’t fantasised about being a castaway? It might not exactly be a desert island for you (my fantasy involves prehistoric coniferous forests, but that isn’t important here) though Ballard made no mistake in naming his book Concrete Island.
The immediate literary hotline runs to Robinson Crusoe, a hero-against-the-odds story that captured the imagination of generations (including Ballard’s), and the real-life castaways that inspired its author Daniel Defoe. This trope has persisted throughout literature and culture, often utilised for explorations of human psychology but always tapping into some primal urge. Presently, you can apply to battle the natural forces on the US reality TV show Survivor, while in the UK the fantasy has breached tea-time radio on the ever-popular Desert Island Discs. Only God himself Gary Larson knew what was up, regularly lampooning this cultural mainstay in his countless desert island Far Side cartoons. Ballard’s approach is much darker and more interrogatory than Larson’s, asking what this fantasy is really an expression of. For Maitland there is certainly an element of self-isolation, escaping the family and the daily grind. In view of his own work offices, he gloats at his colleagues, luxuriating in the freedom he has granted himself. Then there are the physical challenges. Robinson Crusoe tackles the problems of survival, base needs like water and food and shelter, which gradually morph into the challenge of returning to our primitive nature: the original human condition.
This is a theme present throughout much of Ballard’s oeuvre, from the psychological devolution into the cretaceous period in The Drowned World to the social devolution of the middle class in High-Rise. (Devolution is a loaded word – I mean, is the change described a movement away from ‘human’ behaviour or towards the true human nature? That’s a zen question for another day). However, rather than occurring as a result of exterior circumstances, in Concrete Island Maitland’s change in behaviour is arguably the sole result of his current psychological headspace. As he begins to focus all his energy on survival, he casts away (hehe bad pun) all the daily frivolities, the petty contrivances, the responsibilities he shoulders, stripping his life down to the basic human needs. There is a primal thrill to existing completely at the mercy of one’s physical needs, (one I can personally attest to after living alone in the middle of the rainforest), no doubt the same thrill sought by Christopher McCandless when he ventured alone into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. Maitland relishes the starvation, admiring his emaciated form, and exhibits such behaviour as riding on Proctor’s shoulders in a chapter Ballard specifically names ‘Beast and rider’ to highlight the primitive model of their relationship. And this phenomenon, animal and human, slave and master, is a result of what Ballard displays as the true motive behind the castaway fantasy: the need to dominate.
The majority of the novel is dedicated to Maitland’s interactions and altercations with the other two inhabitants of the island, runaway Jane Sheppard and the intellectually challenged acrobat Proctor. (I intended to go into much more detail on these two characters but realise I've already written a lot more than expected). Both outcasts from society by their own volition (to a certain degree), they represent extensions of the island which scupper Maitland’s attempts at escape. They both assist and torment him, until through various contrivances Maitland succeeds in controlling them. Under the guise of requiring their help to escape the island, he justifies the use of force and humiliation to bend these humans to his own will, eventually achieving true peace – as Ballard describes it, ‘a mood of quiet exultation’ – on the island once both characters have been driven out (or to their death) by him. Just as Crusoe slaughtered the natives, so Maitland invaded and conquered his own island. He is portrayed enjoying his actions - ‘he had relished the violent confrontation, knowing that he would make both of them submit to him’ while exhibiting an understanding of what it is that allows him to take this position of superiority. When Ballard writes ‘Maitland’s aggressiveness fulfilled their expectations, their half-conscious estimates of themselves’, he reveals his vision of the true fantasy hidden behind the desert island: the possibility of, and the right to, complete dominion. It is the fantasy of power, of control, as enabled by the development of technology and the urban realm. Over what or who this dominion is exerted is beside the point. To Maitland, ‘all that mattered was that he dominate the senile tramp and this wayward young woman’.
While his domination of Jane and Proctor becomes Maitland’s main struggle as the novel progresses, it is even before the introduction of these characters that the true motive is revealed. While lying in a fever dream, he begins ‘identifying the island with himself’, pushing through the pain of his injuries and the trauma of the ordeals that caused them by marrying those body parts with where they occurred on the island. Here the desire to fuse with the island is in the interest of survival, as ‘at each point a small ritual would signify the transfer of obligation from himself to the island’. This is domination of the island in the purest sense, transforming the island into an extension of his mind. ‘I am the island’, he speaks to himself. Indeed.
So, there we have it. From trying to escape the island, to surviving it, to dominating it, to becoming it, Maitland gets to live out his full marooned-on-a-desert-island-fun-in-the-sun-holiday-spectacular, all within his own suburban backyard. Throughout all this, he perseveres with his half-hearted escape attempts (or delusions of attempts) but we know this is going nowhere. We even get a glimpse into the future courtesy of a glimpse into the past right at the beginning of the story: ‘For years now he had remythologised his own childhood. The image in his mind of a small boy playing endlessly by himself in a long sub-urban garden surrounded by a high fence seemed strangely comforting’. In this one sentence, Ballard summarises his whole novel. Not only does the garden and its fence physically mirror the traffic island, but Maitland’s emotional state is lain bare and the ambiguous ending stretches to infinity with the word ‘endlessly’. Here we have Maitland, unchanged, just remythologised into an adult, never to leave the island that he has made completely his own.
There exists a fuckton more I could write about now that I’m at it – the condemnation of urbanisation and modern technology in enabling these ‘deviant strains in our personalities’, purgatorial allegories, the clear colonial and sexist connotations of Maitland’s need to dominate… I didn’t even talk about the motorway, which arguably is the only other important character, the God to Maitland’s man. Or is it the other way round, since Maitland is the architect? Not sure. Anyway that’s another essay.
<--- Gary Larson: quality every time