My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books (www.newtownreviewofbooks.com)
I’ve read a few books by Christopher Priest now, and I have to confess that often I don’t really understand what is going on in them; but still I read them, and look forward to reading more. This was certainly true of the Hugo Award-nominated novel Inverted World, where a lot of very strange (but entertaining) stuff goes on: I finished it without any solid idea of why or how the events portrayed had happened.
Reading The Adjacent, Priest’s latest, I was similarly confounded. And that feeling leads to a fundamental question about the nature of this or any novel. Namely, for a novel to be ‘successful’, must it contain enough information to ensure the reader is clear what its purpose is, or what the purpose of the author was in writing it?
If you’re not the type of person who likes to be confounded, then The Adjacent is not for you (or Inverted World or The Separation). But if you don’t mind feeling off-kilter all the way through reading a novel, and you don’t expect easy answers (or any answers at all), then The Adjacent may contain some special delights.
The book opens with photographer Tibor Tarent returning home to the IRGB (which we can infer – although we are never told – stands for the Islamic Republic of Great Britain) after his wife Melanie has been killed by terrorists using an ‘adjacency weapon’ while she was working as a nurse in war-ridden Turkey. The fact that this future Britain is under Islamic rule is merely mentioned in passing. The sky hasn’t fallen in as a result, although the country is wracked by tropical cyclones due to inevitable climate change, which has lead to an exodus by the national government to less storm-torn regional centres.
Tibor is being transported to a government centre in the north of England for debriefing:
They passed through increasingly built up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car’s roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.
‘Why have you done that?’ Tarent said.
‘It’s beyond your security clearance level, sir.’
‘Security? Is there something secret out there?’
‘We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.’
‘But I’m a British citizen.’
He visits Melanie’s parents on the way and we learn her father is Polish by birth and had changed his name from Roszca to Roscoe when he resettled.
Tibor’s story abruptly ends while he is still trying to reach his destination, and we follow the fortunes of stage magician Tommy Trent heading to the front during the First World War and encountering HG Wells on the way (Priest is the vice-president of the HG Wells Society). Both men are on missions to improve the war effort. Tommy has been engaged to develop a camouflage system to protect spotter planes as they fly above German lines. He ponders the potential use of misdirection to make enemies look elsewhere – at an adjacent space – whenever a plane passes overhead. But his mission comes to an abrupt end when the pilot who sponsored his trip is killed as soon as Tommy arrives.
Next we’re with journalist Jane Flockhart, who’s doing a piece on theoretical physicist Thijs Rietveld, creator of the Pertubative Adjacency Field. Flockhart is joined by a young Tibor at the start of his career and Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency theory which allows him, like a stage conjurer, to make a conch shell appear in one hand, then the other, then disappear altogether.
After that we follow the fortunes of Mike Torrance, an ‘instrument thumper’ working on Lancaster Bombers during World War II, who meets, and falls in love with, a young female Polish pilot – Krystyna Roszca – delivering new planes to his squadron. Krystyna yearns to know what has happened to her lover Tomak, who was separated from her during the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Then Tibor Tarent resumes his story and is trapped in a government facility by another tropical cyclone. This is followed by Tomak Tallant’s journey through the imaginary island of Prachous …
You can see what’s happening here. Story strands, names and people are bleeding into each other, echoing or retelling occurrences with subtle variations. Nothing is certain and every observation, every utterance, seems suffused with meaning as a result. It’s all very strange and the characters feel that too, sometimes leaning outside the novel’s frame of reference and addressing the reader:
I feel as if this country has changed out of all recognition. I assume it’s just the way I see it now. I feel stuck in the past, but in some way I find completely confusing it’s a past I never actually knew – Tibor Tarent, IRGB
There were times in the past when he had not been here but his memories were textureless, uninterrupted, a smooth continuity. He felt an agony of uncertainty, memory being tested by rationality. – Tomak Tallant, Prachous
Something lay between us. It was intangible, inexplicable: we seemed to be shouting to each other across a divide. It was as if we were in sight, physically close, adjacent to each other but separated by misunderstandings, different lives, different memories. – Kirstenya Rosscky, Prachous
The resonances between these different stories multiply, calve off like icebergs forming or crash into each other. Tibor the photographer witnesses a collection of dead bodies being loaded onto a truck containing the corpses’ very much alive doppelgangers, he sees buildings that others around him cannot see, and travels to a time and place that predates his birth. Again and again there is the feeling that something significant is going on beneath the surface narratives. You can look for confirmation of what that something is in vain, and yet the feeling persists:
At some points, from some angles, the triangle contained the buildings of a city – from other views it became once again that terrifying place of zero colour, black non-existence. Whenever I was close to the apexes, the sixty-degree angle at each of the triangle’s corners, the image began to flicker with increasing rapidity. As I banked around the angle, the shift between the two became so rapid that it seemed for a moment that all I could see was a part of the reedland, but then, as my course took me along the next side of the triangle, the shifting between the two began to slow, and at the halfway mark what I could see was a steady view: from some sides it appeared as the black triangle of nothingness, from others it would again be the image of the city.
The Adjacent also visits a lot of the places and concepts that Priest has explored in other novels, for example, the Second World War squadrons that form the backdrop for much of The Separation (and in fact The Adjacent carries a name check for one of the main characters in The Separation), magicians and illusions familiar from The Prestige, the strange archipelago islands of The Affirmation and The Islanders, and the HG Wells-related The Space Machine. It’s as if Priest is visiting the back stage of his ‘mental novel-writing landscape’, brushing against scenery here, picking up an often-used prop there and creating an amalgam that blends and flows across lines he’s previously drawn between his books.
Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Or maybe it’s something completely different.
The fact is, I don’t know, and perhaps no one can except the author. But what Priest has achieved is a novel structure that provokes us to interact with it from page to page, constructing meaning, reaching for and discarding theories, trying to figure it all out. Ultimately we may fail to grasp what’s going on. I certainly did. But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps Priest simply wants to create that interaction, to make us engage and not just sit back and let the novel wash over us. If that’s the case, he manages it masterfully.
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