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concrete islandAn overgrown short story, at 176 pages. Even more so, structurally: a novella would have a secondary plotline, perhaps Maitland’s wife pining for him, or some ironically detatched narrative of road crews nearby cleaning the streets.

Along with High Rise, this is probably the entry-level Ballard (for those who don’t want to parse his short stories first). It is clean, simple, foundational, and shows clearly his ability to draw psychological, indwelling insight out of his wrecked situations. Psychological? Maybe instinctual, almost racially-embedded drives to be other than we are, trussed up in civilization. The best passage suggests Maitland – who has been tossed, via flat tire (or, ‘tyre’, as the American version pleasantly maintains the Britishism), into a small inescapable wilderness between motorways – actually prefers to be here. The best moment might be one of the few tremendous micturation scenes in world literature, somewhere behind Gulliver’s Travels.

If anything, I wish this were richer, the way High Rise manages to capture competing factions within the apartment tower, and lives churning around the protagonist. Especially with Concrete Island’s length, there feels room to get something else going, or push further into the island’s life. We have (SPOILERS) two well-drawn weirdos who encounter Maitland before long – with Proctor the best character Ballard has drawn, in what I’ve read by him – and, by the end, this small civilization has dissolved. But what about the past? What about the future? I believe it’s a bit cute suggesting Maitland might want to stay down there — why not really dig into this idea? Flash forward to him, as broken and manic denizen, kidnapping a member of a road crew, or recognizing some new wreck has plowed through the curtains? There seems a fierce ending that is missing.

Still. I’ve ran into suggestions Ballard is a great writer who failed to generate a single piercing book, i.e. ‘the one to go to’. This is a good thing, if true. You read Concrete Island alongside the rest. It’s a universe.

concrete island

All the things that people say are said only in monologues, the prince said. “We are in an age of monologues. The art of the monologue is also a far higher art than the art of dialogue,” he said. “But monologues are just as pointless as dialogues, although in a way much less pointless. Whenever you engage in a dialogue with another person (with yourself!) because otherwise you are suddenly afraid of suffocating, you must be prepared for his doing his utmost to undercut you. That can be done in the subtlest, the most elaborate, but also the nastiest manner. Whenever people talk they undercut one another. The art of conversation is an art of undercutting, and the art of monologue is the most horrible kind of undercutting. I always think,” the prince said, “that my interlocutor is trying to push me down into his own abyss after I have just barely managed to escape from my own abyss. Your interlocutors try to push you into as many abysses as possible simultaneously. All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.”

Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles

Nice bit from 10 years ago on The Believer by a ‘Brian Evenson’ (who are these people? what happens to them? google search: he’s written a lot of fiction, including pseudonymously with Rob Zombie) discussing Steve Erickson, man of the last waning hour, as a po-mo dude, and why he’s not placed among the shortlisted luminaries DeLillo and Pynchon and… well, those are the big ones left to be mentioned, eh?

It’s a lot to digest.  He maintains that Erickson’s romanticism and dreaminess runs at odds with those other writers, which is true.  I suppose what underlies the inquiry for me is why he has to be considered postmodernist at all.  I suppose that’s Evenson’s point: consider him separate.  Those two stalwarts are much more technical in their obsessions, the tinkering, endless riff-raff of war and survey in Pynchon, and DeLillo’s almost more literal technica (shown most obliquely in his strange tectonic, clashing dialogues).

What emerges from a provocative essay, alongside the fruitfulness of comparing one writer to his or her near contemporaries, or rather running lurkingly beneath it, is the problem with canon formation.  How groups of writers, groups of thoughts, groups of art/novels/musical pieces, get boiled down to a handful of exemplars for better digestion.  To wit: I am increasingly interested in Steve Erickson and Richard Powers, but they will never be as well known as DeLillo and Pynchon.  Those two are great doors set into the wall that remain closed.

Having only ever read The Sea Came In At Midnight and detect a fluid, yet discursive narrative style that I’m eager to see whether it casts across his writing in general.  The books were written fourteen years apart (published, rather, 1985 vs. 1999) and the narrative digressions are breezier with the earlier book.  There’s an amazing concatenation of character strands that fascinated me in The Sea Came In At Midnight (as much as it didn’t quite satisfy as a whole) that suggests a more mature writer.

Days Between Stations was his first novel, and I don’t mean to say the digressions are leaden.  Not at all, but it is certainly moored, another way to say made heavier, by a silent-film centered around the death of Marat.  The book centers around this, in multiple eras, and joins Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions in a kind of sub-industry of novels dealing with faded, near, alternative, shadow stars from the early days of cinema.  (And both are pleasing in the same way.)

So, I came in expecting one thing, something along the lines of  to the well-travelled, skimming brevity of lonely yet vibrant lives and ideas of the later novel, and got something more dreamlike and strange.  This isn’t Erickson’s fault, although the title suggests road trips, discovering America, buttes and deserts.

The oneiric portions roll off me, however, and it feels he’s straining for affect.  The portions in the Paris brothel early on feel too cooked-up to be impactful, the digression with the Montreal youth and his father (and the flintlock!) too narratively frothy to sink in, and the Adrien/Michel, eyepatching, love triangle stuff too ungrounded to really sing to me.  (I remain a guy who hates to hear about other people’s dreams.)

This feels like apprentice-work, but unlike most novels of the kind, it’s far too assured and unique to be dismissed out of hand.  He remains a writer I find very intriguing and I look forward to reading more.

Feels incomplete. (Link to the New Yorker, btw.  Story is currently free to read.)

Caught my eye because Smith is reliable in creating sympathetic characters with higher level thought processes.  I happened to be tinkering on a piece dealing with a minister departing a foreign country.  So, we’re like, twins. 

While I haven’t read a ton of her stuff, I’ve noticed a lack of refinement in the symbolism department.  To wit…

Synopsis: Minister of a disaster-ravaged country heads to the airport, encountering a harrowing figure from the past, suggesting tough decisions in the formation of the current government.

As she says in the interview discussing the story, the title comes from a small Flemish painting she had seen in a NY gallery with her husband that she decided to let her minister actually own and abscond with in his departure.

Surprisingly, the painting factors very little in the story.  The title factors very little in the story.  There is little comparison between the presumably serenic landscape and the devastation wrecking this country ostensibly on the other side of the world and of another time.

I think much can be done there.  And ought to be.  It’s quite mystifying.

Smith leads us, too, in the vicinity of danger, but is reluctant to lead us into 1) depravity, or 2) fatalistic uncertainty.  Early, the Minister and his driver encounters a crowd desperate for resources (water).  Later, they encounter an escaped convict who knows the Minister from years before.  In the former instance, we don’t have a sense of the desperation of the crowd; the worst that happens (or feels like could happen) is that the Minister’s trouser leg gets caught in mud.  In the latter, the escapee is wisely shown to have been freed by the weather disaster, but neither is this force of nature underlined (in either respect, of hurricane/typhoon, or convict himself), nor are we ever afraid for the Minister’s life.  Weapons are displayed, but we feel pretty comfy.

There’s no washed out bridge, or similar, as far as I remember, though that might be too on the nose.

I don’t understand why the painting was selected, then, if not to emphasize a departure.  Dichotomies are everywhere:  civilization/dischord, civilization/nature, serenity/chaos, esteemed present/underhanded past, power/riff-raff.  But only the last two are developed beyond sketches.  Too bad.