Never Mind ‘High-Rise’ — ‘Concrete Island’ is J.G. Ballard’s Dystopic Masterpiece


English director Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, out in the United States on May 13, represents the latest effort to extract a movie from J.G. Ballard’s so-called “urban disaster trilogy.” High-Rise, the last novel in Ballard’s trilogy, first appeared in 1975, and was preceded by Concrete Island (1974) and Crash (1973). David Cronenberg, a one-man Impossible Missions Force when it comes to adapting the unadaptable, took a shot at bringing Crash to screen in the 1990s. (The novel, about a subculture that gets off on car accidents, is short on dialogue and plot.) High-Rise, for its part, concerns a class war that reduces each floor of a luxury apartment to a veldt. (Dog is cooked, incest committed.) These are postwar masterpieces, but postmodern assaults on realism, too; neither Crash nor High-Rise produces a character with which readers can identify for long.

It’s baffling, then, that Concrete Island has never made it to screen. Though less self-consciously lurid than its bookends, and nowhere near as violent, the middle entry in Ballard’s trilogy is perfectly cinematic: it places an accessible protagonist, due for his comeuppance, in peril — then introduces a series of complications. The novel begins with a car crash that maroons an architect, Robert Maitland, on a parcel of disused land, enclosed by several motorways. But in trying to flag down a ride, Maitland sustains an injury, which prevents further attempts at the steep embankment. No cars stop to help, and the architect, to his growing disbelief, finds himself trapped on the island, without food or water. It’s one of the most ingenious dystopic fictions ever contrived; the crash deposits Maitland very nearly in sight of the office tower where “his secretary was typing the agenda for the following week’s finance committee meeting”—but the crash is cataclysmic, too: Maitland might as well be the last person in London.

You can dispatch Concrete Island in an evening (my 1992 Paladin edition fills a mere 126 pages), and wander off with the impression that the novel is testing a hypothesis. The deceptively artless opening sentences cut straight to the crash:

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre [sic]. The exploding air reflected from the concrete parapet seemed to detonate inside Robert Maitland’s skull.

Ballard’s cool prose gives off the chill of the laboratory; this is research study, as much as character study, in which variables are introduced and strings pulled. (As Maitland fights for control of the steering wheel, he “jerk[s] his hands like a puppet’s.”) Up to this point, Maitland’s life has been so cushy it has a thread count. It comes with a wife, a mistress, and a crate of white Burgundy in the trunk. Moreover, his faith in civilization is total. “Turning his back on the island, Maitland stepped on to the foot of the embankment and clambered up the soft slope,” writes Ballard as the first chapter comes to a close. “He would climb the embankment, wave down a passing car and be on his way.”

A series of setbacks and failed attempts to escape, however, will bring him close to death. And soon enough this Crusoe-reboot will encounter other denizens of the island — Jane, a young prostitute, and Proctor, a former circus acrobat with an intellectual disability, the result of a fall. By the end, he has dominated the island, but also devolved enough to lose interest in quitting it: “Maitland tore away the remains of his ragged shirt, and lay barechested in the warm air, the bright sunlight picking out the sticks of his ribs.” Privilege has turned predator.

Ballard’s book, however, isn’t an affirmation of dog-eat-Darwinism. The presiding image of the island’s waist-high grass, which claims the chassis of assorted cars, Maitland’s included, is terrifying. As the novel comes to a close, the architect himself seems mindlessly rooted, if not paralyzed. “In some ways the task he had set himself was meaningless,” writes Ballard. “Already he felt no real need to leave the island, and this alone confirmed that he had established dominion over it.” As speculative fiction goes, this is sophisticated stuff; rather than imagine some fascist, post-apocalyptic society — see the graphic novel V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s England — Ballard discovered the plausible dystopia in plain sight: a concrete, postwar London in which the marginalized populate literal margins, those ruled lines where city-planning comes to an abrupt stop.

[Ballard’s] wasteland isn’t the outcome of nuclear war; it’s the blank patch at the edge of our blueprints, the social void in our peripheral vision.

All of that may sound didactic, even over-determined. Concrete Island’s peers, Crash and High-Rise, though mesmerizing, certainly come equipped with passages purpose-built to be circled by students. (“In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”) But the language Ballard invents for Concrete Island is more evocative, less schematic. His sentences about the crash are crisp and original — “The sequence of violent events only micro-seconds in duration had opened and closed behind him like a vent of hell” — and his characters are more than simply lab mice, lowered into their scenario by length of tail. After being attacked by Proctor, the injured architect comes to in Jane’s living quarters, an abandoned cinema located on the island. He thinks he’s been rescued, but Jane, who means to keep Maitland, is evasive about their location. Our initial sense of the novel as a controlled experiment — take one privileged Londoner and apply pressure — starts to dissipate; Ballard hints at backstories, and supplies his characters with supple psychologies. Information comes to us, as it comes to Maitland: gradually, through the keyhole of his viewpoint. As the architect’s dread deepens, so, too, does ours.

Ballard has authored more conventional works of speculative fiction. His excellent debut, The Drowned World (1962), imagines a future in which the polar icecaps have melted and transformed London into a lagoon, stocked with giant mosquitoes and primeval lizards. But as the novelist William Gibson notes, “Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now. The best science fiction has always known that, but it was a sort of cultural secret.” It’s encouraging, then, that Wheatley has elected to keep his adaptation of High-Rise set squarely in the moment that Ballard imagined: a present understudying for the future, in which poor urban planning makes islands of us all. As the trailer reveals, the titular apartment is a Brutalist concoction of poured concrete, the clothing seems beamed in from a key party, and at least one character’s head is in the grip of muttonchops. It’s the day-for-night future of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange [1971] and Fassbinder’s World on a Wire [1973] — science fiction that found the ’70s to be sufficiently terrifying.

Similarly, there are no zombies in Concrete Island — no irrational, irradiated hordes pitched against a heroic individual. Maitland’s wasteland isn’t the outcome of nuclear war; it’s the blank patch at the edge of our blueprints, the social void in our peripheral vision. If there are monsters in Ballard’s book, they’re the many motorists who regard Maitland blankly as they pass, urged ever onward, in well-defined lanes, by the traffic behind.

Jason Guriel’s writing has recently appeared in The New Republic and The Walrus. He is the author of The Pigheaded Soul: Essays and Reviews on Poetry and Culture (2013). Follow him on Twitter at @jasonguriel.