July 21, 2020

Concrete Island

I started reading J.G. Ballard in the middle of his “modern life is rubbish” trilogy, having not read Crash. Actually, “started” is the wrong way to put it: I’ve read The Wind from Nowhere before, but that’s not great. So not great, in fact, that the “About this Author” section in his other books pretends that he started writing later, claiming The Drowned World as his first novel.

Anyway, Concrete Island is a good read. I got through it very quickly, always a good sign of a compelling novel: I read it over the course of a weekend. The central premise of “Robinson Crusoe, but on a motorway junction” is well-known, and well-executed. The sense of isolation in the middle of modern society is very recognisable.

In the introduction to the 4th estate print that I read, Neil Gaiman suggested that Concrete Island could be set today, and you’d just need to break the protagonist’s mobile phone in the crash. I don’t know that that’s true. It would be entirely in-character for even a popular “influencer” to not want to post about their embarrassing accident online, or admit that their life was less than perfect. They may not even think to phone emergency services as it doesn’t occur to them that their snapchat box is a phone. After a few hours of connecting to patchy 4G and mindlessly scrolling their feed, the phone dies, and they forgot the USB lead for their car accessory port.

Something I found weird was the amount of stuff on the “desert island”. This 200-yard grassy patch near a motorway junction has the remnants of Edwardian terraced houses, a breaker’s yard, a ruined cinema, and some air raid shelters. Maybe it’s that there’s more conscious landscaping of roadways in my adult life than there was when Ballard was writing, but I would expect a much more sterile habitat.

© Graham Lee