Reading Ted Jackson's story about one-time Super Bowl player Jackie Wallace recently, I was struck by a passage describing how Jackson's photo editor Kurt Mutchler "noticed a homeless camp beneath the Interstate 10 overpass near South Carrollton Avenue. From the interstate ramp heading west, he had caught a glimpse of a living room of sorts, with men resting on ragged couches and old easy chairs circled around a camp stove and rickety tables." The reason this passage in particular resonated with me was that at the time I was reading J G Ballard's Concrete Island, which also describes life lived amid urban detritus by people who have fallen through the cracks.
A lower-profile novel than its companion-pieces Crash and High-Rise on account of their film adaptations, Concrete Island tells the story of successful professional Robert Maitland, who crashes his car off the carriageway and finds himself trapped, no one heeding his pleas for help. That he has both a wife and a mistress and that they know of each other's existence means that neither raises the alarm or organises a search party, each automatically assuming he's with the other. (Though the scenario of the book, first published in 1974, might seem rather contrived to the modern reader, rendered improbable by the prevalence of mobile phones, it's worth remembering that even today such situations aren't as implausible as you might think.)
The Sunday Times hailed the book as a "brilliantly original fable"; I'd agree to the extent that its brilliance and originality lie in the way that Ballard took the powerful trope of the desert island from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and transplanted it into an urban context. As for Crusoe, Maitland's primary task is simply survival, which he manages through a similarly desperate resourcefulness and ingenuity.
But Ballard also draws on William Golding's Lord Of The Flies in chronicling Maitland's swift descent from a civilised and wealthy architect to a debased savage who seeks domination not merely over the island but also over the others who live there. The novel concludes with Maitland's triumph over both - an empty triumph that celebrates isolation rather than community and that brings him no nearer to being rescued.
What makes Concrete Island particularly striking, however, is that - unlike Crash and High-Rise, as well as other Ballard novels such as Super-Cannes and his debut The Drowned World - it can't be faithfully described as a fantasy, a dystopian vision. Like the homeless people living under the Interstate 10 overpass, Maitland is effectively hidden in plain sight. He can even see his own office block from the island (and there is a sharp irony in the fact that, as an architect, he could be seen as having helped to construct his own prison). Beyond the island, life carries on as normal, the near-constant stream of traffic apparently oblivious to his predicament. The picture that Ballard paints, then, is not one of a horrifying alternative reality but one of the reality we inhabit now - and that is infinitely more horrifying.