Mmm, Whatcha Say? How the Breakdown of Space and Time Lead to a Breakdown in Communication in Concrete Island

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In J.G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, Robert Maitland tries to navigate the frightening terrain of an ancient, forgotten, ignored, and confusing island situated underneath and between London motorways following his crash. Trapped in a neglected land full of “nettles and wild grass that grew waist-high outside the windows” of his ruined Jaguar, Maitland initially seems to be incredibly unfortunate, yes, but still able to pull himself out of this troubling situation, for he successfully climbs the embankment on his first attempt and seems as though he’ll escape the predicament soon, right?

If only.

Despite his repeated attempts to flag down drivers, yelling “‘Emergency .. ! … Slow down…! … Police…!'” every car manages to be swept away by the rushed flow of modern London traffic, so much so that “it seemed to him that every vehicle in London had passed and re-passed him a dozen times, the drivers and passenger deliberately ignoring him in a vast spontaneous conspiracy” (18, 19). This frustrating episode in which help is literally inches away but manages to slip away each time is the first suggestion of how communication breaks down when someone, like Maitland, is exposed to the otherworldly nature of a derelict space (i.e. the island). Moreover, the fact that it seems to him like every car he sees has already passed him contributes to the disturbing repetitive temporality that characterizes his experience as a marooned Robinson Crusoe figure. Eventually, after his failure to secure help and safety, he must resort to speaking his plans aloud, stating “as a self-identification signal,” “‘Maitland, no one’s going to believe this'” (30). That he must rely on “self-identification” signals in this wasteland demonstrates how capable space is, especially a space where eras layer upon each other, of imposing its own identity-robbing force on people. This strange no-man’s land also has the power to sap one’s grasp on reality, as demonstrated by Maitland’s confusion when the letters he marks on concrete towards the top of the embankment, “HELP INJURED DRIVER CALL POLICE,” “had been obliterated” when he returns to search for them in the rain (62, 66). That “the letters had been reduced to black smudges, the smeared rubber running to the ground at his feet,” causing him to wonder “Had someone wiped the letters away?” emphasizes the degeneration of communication being on the island inspires (67). Moreover, this vanishing of the letters prompts Maitland to feel “[u]ncertain of himself,” demonstrating the break in communication that he has with his own sanity, for without visible proof of his attempts for help, Maitland is left questioning his own actions (67).

Maitland’s attempts to remain sane by communicating with himself are transformed when he meets Jane and Proctor, for finding other humans on what seemed to be a totally deserted island promotes Maitland’s desire to utilize manipulation to get himself to safety. In particular, it is Maitland’s relationship with and exploitation of Proctor, the mentally challenged acrobat, that illuminates the mess that lack of clarity in communication fosters. When Maitland teaches Proctor to write, the fact that Maitland twists Proctor’s desire to write his own name into a chance to save himself, writing “MAITLAND HELP” instead of Proctor’s name, reveals the frightening element of trust that goes into proper communication (152). Because Proctor doesn’t know any better, the message that Maitland delivers to him via the written word does not align with Proctor’s intention. Truth and falsehoods, although unbeknownst to Proctor, are thrown into chaos in this island, for the rules of modern London cannot apply here due to its almost suspended-from-reality nature. That Proctor goes on to write “HELP CRASH POLICE” and then “rubbed away the message with the back of his hand, spitting on the coloured concrete” also speaks to the transience of communication (153). Not only does Proctor again physically write words different from what he thinks he’s writing, but he also quickly destroys the communicative letters due to an inbred fear of how dangerous communication can be. What’s left are “straggling fragments of Maitland’s name,” echoing the “straggling fragments” of communication that Maitland has with the progressive modern London only feet above him (153).

Stranded in a land where space, time, and communication collapse into a jumble of ????, Maitland loses the orderly strands of communication that we so take for granted, ultimately drawing attention to the fragility of the structures modern society relies upon.

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