Friday Reads: Concrete Island by JG Ballard

OK I need to start this with a confession. I have dipped into many Ballard novels before. I saw Cronenburg’s film of Crash, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (“P51 Mustang! Cadillac of the skies!”). I have read interviews, I have read about him. Hell, I even met the great man once when he came to sign copies of The Day of Creation at the bookshop where I worked. But this is only the third book by him that I have read. I read the aforementioned The Day of Creation and Running Wild in the late eighties and loved them. The distant memory of Running Wild is partial but very pungent; could it be that The Day of Creation wasn’t that good? And then stuff got in the way like stuff tends to do. Until, recently, fired by guilt and acquisitiveness I bought Crash, Concrete Island, Drowned World and the two volumes of the complete short stories. And dived in. I picked up Concrete Island.

Ballard is one of those writers who is much referenced, much quoted (there is a twitter account that only tweets his chapter titles; Chapter 22 – The Pavilion of Doors), much imitated. One of those writers where you feel you know what you are going to get. Ballardisms are a thing. And when you become an “-ism” you veer dangerously close to being parodied, to becoming a parody even.

So, shall we tick off the Ballard checklist?

  • An emotionally hampered professional careering between unfulfilling relationships, an abstracted job and dislocated, fractured memories of childhood? TICK
  • An account of a society lost in a modern life that is chilly, impersonal and dystopian? TICK
  • A world of cold reflective surfaces distracting us from its own decay? TICK

So far so Ballard. Concrete Island is Ur-Ballard. This slim (oh what has happened to the notion that you can say all there is to say in less than 200 pages?) volume represents so much of what I expected Ballard to be about.

But then there’s all the other stuff. The people. Not just the high-functioning, autistic architect; but the runaway and the life she is hiding from herself (her brilliantly drawn mix of sudden kindnesses and angers); and the ex-circus acrobat and his conscious descent into another way of living which at least provides him with certainties. They jump at you. They startle you with their oddness, their irrational behaviour, their sharp fears and hampered empathies. Ballard is not just a writer of clever allegories and heartless dystopias, he is a writer of people. He cares about them. He tries to understand them, he is very reluctant to judge them. There is a complexity to the moral compass in Concrete Island that I did not expect.

And there are the surreal images, the startling revelations that overtake the characters when they least expect it (“I am the island”). These aren’t loaded with meaning but they are loaded with power. Ballard knows that explaining something can reduce it. He leaves the reader to ponder, to perhaps misunderstand but most importantly to be *struck* by an image. Concrete Island is chock-a-block with startling moments and yes lots of them are about concrete, and blind streams of traffic and families locked behind lit windows, and remnants of lives since lost or discarded, but the line that will stay with me is not a line I expected from the Ballard I had imagined. It is a simple and nightmarish image. A line dropped in. A  line that allows you to see the situation he has drawn you into, from the outside. A line that suddenly makes the relationship you were witnessing something out of Hieronymus Bosch:

“Bent beast and pale rider, they wandered through the seething grass.”

I’m going to be reading a lot more JG Ballard, looking for moments like that.