1.17.2013

No Exit -- "The Concentration City" of J.G. Ballard's




"The Concentration City" (1957) is one Hell of a story.  That Ballard named his leads Franz and Gregson and set certain bureaucratic procedural crime dramas around them made me think immediately of The Metamorphosis, but I'm not positive Ballard was intentionally riffing off Kafka here.  And regarding Concentration City's history there's multiple mentions to a time "before the Foundation" millions of years ago, which seems to be a gracious nod in Isaac Asimov's direction.

Hong Kong's concentrated high rises.  Photo by Michael Wolf 

Franz aims to fly in Concentration City (it was a dream he had) but there's really no room to fly in a city that has no open air space -- not even for a single bird.  Any available space is already occupied with construction.  So he hatches a plan with Gregson not so much to escape Concentration City but to ride the commuter train, a "Supersleeper" that connects the various Sectors and Federations of the city, West for as long as necessary in order to find "Free Space," as the going rate for space is a pricey $1/cubic ft.  After days on the "sleeper" Franz passes slums where space is as low as five cents/cubic ft., but those neighborhoods have been walled off so that no one can enter and those unlucky inhabitants who live there cannot leave.  No exit indeed.

Franz discovers that streets and levels of Concentration City go up to the millions, like 3,456,877th Street, another fascinating concept of Ballard's, and one he uses to great effect in conveying what is the most likely location of Concentration City.  It's like New York, Mumbai, and Hong Kong all combined, to roughly the hundreth power; this Concentration City so built up and out that each floor of its buildings are now levels of this hyper-concentrated, interconnected city, with perhaps only elevated alleyways separating the buildings, whose passageways through the floors of the buildings form what I gather is some semblance of a 3-D city, a matrix, built out in every conceivable direction, infinitely.  Ballard uses "infinitely" more than once.  Franz passes his time on the train drawing dreams, but the dreams are not his.  

After ten days of nonstop riding on the train, Franz discovers he is now heading East.  WTF? he asks the crew, who then inform him that the train he's on has always been heading East.  Huh?  When he got on it was heading West.  And when he returns to where he hopped on, at the mainline terminal three weeks later, how is it possible that it is now the same day as when he first left?  Either time folded or there is no time in Concentration City.  Ballard is building on his theory of time he began in "Escapement"(1956): that the future is now and the past may be present, on, from what I've gathered in commentaries, is his "time's malleable continuum".  Dreams and some unconscious element (collective memories?) backlight this story too, and from what I've gathered will eventually be the main stage of several of his later stories.

Beware "The Pyros" of "The Concentration City" -- nice ironic twist of Ballard's -- of those who wish to set fire to the tenements of Hell; but beware more the Fire Police, who'll send you to The Slums, the condensed ghetto where you can never leave.  As if anybody ever leaves Concentration City.  Whispers, or maybe shouts, obviously, of Sartre, abound in this escapist -- but at times startlingly profound -- intriguing read.  Easily his best story so far.

~ short film adaptation of The Concentration City

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I also pulled Julio Cortázar off the shelf recently and read his story "Axolotl," a bizarre and intriguing glimpse at how when we take an obsession to its extreme, we might literally become one with our obsession.  There exist definite threads of similarity in thematic concepts between Ballard and Cortázar that perhaps I'll explore later in a future post (although I should add that perhaps, if we're to take Ballard at his vision, that future post of mine may already exist, if not in the here and now, then perhaps in the past).

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