23 June 2005

Robinson Crusoe in the Waste Land

"Concrete Island" by J.G. Ballard

Ballard's universe is a cruel, airless and peculiarly British place, even when his dramas occur in an unspecific everywhere, a generalized Euro-city on the edge of decay.

I looked forward to reading "Concrete Island" as the scenario sounded so unlikely, and therefore possessing one of the qualities of Ballard's best stories. On a day in April, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, everyman's car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the grassy island below, where he is trapped, while the office drones speed past him on their way home from work, the talkback radio drowning out his screams.

Reading Ballard at his best is thrilling, like watching a circus performer on a tightrope. You're aware how precarious it must be keeping everything in the air, yet also appreciating the secret art of it, aware that it's supposed to look hard. The illusion doesn't quite succeed here. It is not quite the masterpiece "Crash" was, though it does share many of that books disturbing themes.

He describes a world like the one we know, yet drained of empathy and common purpose. People, like the figures who populate this "island", scratch about to survive, forced to compete self-destructively and violently for resources while the rest of us, oblivious, rush off to appointments or home for dinner. This is one of the most obviously and persuasively political of Ballard's books. It is however a pity, and a familiar limitation of his writing (and SF generally) that at no time do the characters transcend their function in the novel's machinery and step out to become fully formed creations.

He is a writer of images and ideas, obsessively visual and descriptive, but oddly lacking in the ability to give his characters independant existence.

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