Saturday, August 11, 2012

Allegory of Isolation

Concrete Island
Concrete Island 

"He realized, above all, that the assumption he had made repeatedly since his arrival on the island – that sooner or later his crashed car would be noticed by a passing driver or policeman, and that rescue would come as inevitably as if he had crashed into the central reservation of a suburban dual carriageway – was completely false, part of that whole system of comfortable expectation he had carried with him. Given the peculiar topography of the island, its mantle of deep grass and coarse shrubbery, and the collection of ruined vehicles, there was no certainty that he would ever be noticed at all." (p 43)

I was aroused and taken in by this short novel -- a nightmare fantasy of contemporary society from the versatile pen of J. G. Ballard.  The story opens with a crash that results in hero Robert Maitland marooned on a seemingly deserted traffic island just outside London watching the unconcerned motorists stream by. He gradually comes to the realization that his world of normal expectations had disappeared in this island that seemed almost in an alternate universe in spite of his sensations that reminded him of the world he had left behind.
This modern-day Crusoe encounters two inhabitants in his explorations -- a Sadie Thompson-ish neurotic runaway and a mentally defective ex-circus acrobat with the "natural dignity of a large, simple animal" -- whom he manipulates brutally in order to survive. He tells himself, "I am the island" and in case you missed that, the little tart reminds him later, "You were on an island long before you crashed here." Escape, then, becomes problematical: from where? to what? and on what terms? The "conspiracy of the grotesque" that traps him is more than Maitland's trial -- it's his only destiny, and perhaps no more than technological man deserves. Ballard handles this kind of reductive moral fable with incomparable finesse, investing the narrative with savage horror that eats away at banal appearance and reveals the skeleton beneath the skin.  It is an allegory of horror in the sublime substance of isolation in a world gone awry.

Concrete Island: A Novel by J. G. Ballard. Picador, 2001 (1973)

No comments: