J. G. Ballard's "Concrete Island" is, essentially, an adaptation of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, updating the story from the seventeenth century to the 1970s and relocating it from a remote desert island to West London. Yes, that's right. West London.
The "island" on which the action takes place is a triangular section of fenced-off wasteland formed by the intersection of two motorways. The protagonist of the story, Robert Maitland, is marooned on the island when his car crashes. An injury to his leg leaves him unable to climb the fence or steep banks which surround the island, and the fact that it is screened from public view means that he and his car are unlikely to be seen from the surrounding roads. His irregular home life also adds to his predicament. He has both a wife and a mistress, and spends time living with both women, who are seemingly happy with this arrangement. His disappearance therefore goes unnoticed for some time, as both women assume that he is with the other. Maitland is forced to survive on what he is able to find on the island. He discovers, however, that he is not its only inhabitant; he shares it with Jane Sheppard, young women of good family on the run from a failed marriage, and Proctor, a mentally handicapped former circus acrobat.
The setting of the story is absolutely precise, both in place and time. Maitland's crash occurs at the intersection of the Westway and the M4 Motorway soon after three o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday 22nd April 1973 (a year before the book was published). Or, at least, it purports to be absolutely precise, but Ballard's opening paragraph contains two deliberate mistakes. In reality, April 22nd 1973 was not a Thursday but a Sunday- in fact, it was Easter Day. And at no point does the Westway intersect with the M4.
These deliberate errors may give a clue as to Ballard's intentions. "Concrete Island" was not intended as a piece of realistic fiction, despite the detail with which he describes Maitland's surroundings. (Although even here he may be playing games- his descriptions of the "island's" vegetation would in England suggest a time of year later than April). Certainly, some of the interactions between Maitland, Jane and Proctor are not particularly realistic, but those who accuse the author of a lack of realism are therefore missing the point. The book is intended as an allegory rather than a piece of social realism.
The central image of the "concrete island" symbolises the way in which 20th century technology acts to dehumanise and isolate us. We are increasingly dependent on this technology, yet it has the effect of cutting us off from the rest of society, of turning us into metaphorical Robinson Crusoes. Since the book was published in 1974, this has become even truer, in ways that were perhaps not envisaged in the mid-seventies, especially with the growth of computer technology. .
The word "isolate" is derived from "isola", the Italian word for "island", and the image of the island also is used to symbolise another type of isolation, that which has grown up between the various strata of society. The 1970s and 1980s, which saw frequent strikes and clashes between the trades unions and governments of both Right and Left, are often seen as the period when class conflict in Britain was at its most intense, and this is something reflected in the book. Maitland, a wealthy, Jaguar-driving, Burgundy-drinking architect, is a representative of the affluent middle classes, while Jane and Proctor are members of the underclass. He finds himself stranded on a manmade island as a result of an accident, while they are stranded there as a result of social conditions. They can be seen as representing all those who, as a result of poverty or some other form of social exclusion, are stranded on metaphorical manmade islands, if not on real ones.
The book is a short one, a novella rather than a full-length novel, in my edition only running to some 120 pages. Ballard writes in a terse, spare, powerful prose, the power of which is emphasised by his short sentences and matter-of-fact descriptions. Although Maitland's surroundings are as prosaic and everyday as one could wish for, they take on an increasingly hallucinatory, and increasingly frightening, quality which intensifies as his predicament worsens. "Concrete Island" can be seen as a nightmare allegory of the machine age.