An 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.