Friday 25 April 2014

The Adjacent - Christopher Priest

   I finally got round to reading Christopher Priest’s latest, Clarke and BSFA Award nominated, The Adjacent. If you’ve never read a Priest novel I would urge you to give him a try: he has been writing good or great novels for over forty years. He’s won the BSFA Award four times and the Clarke once in 2002 with The Separation, and it was surprising when The Islanders didn’t make the Clarke shortlist in 2012. Christopher Nolan’s film version of The Prestige is good, but unsurprisingly, the novel is better. So how good is The Adjacent, and if I were a Priest newbie, would it be a good starting point? Maybe it would.

   First I’ll direct you to some other reviews. John Clute gets to the heart of Priest’s novel here, as does Paul Kincaid here and Adam Roberts here. I also like Paul Di Filippo’s review for Locus. They’ve all been reading genre fiction and Priest for much longer, and with greater focus, than I have so I would urge you to examine their insights.

  Priest’s prose sometimes gets criticised as functional and plain, and I can understand why but it’s misplaced. It is certainly never showy, and figures of speech are few and far between, but actually his prose is exact, crystal clear, fluent and deceptively nuanced. So the first thing to say is how easy and exciting The Adjacent is to read – you see and understand the action in Priest’s worlds perfectly even as you feel excited, uneasy, perplexed or contemplative. There are eight sections to the novel, sometimes written in first person, sometimes in third that evoke different moods, times and places seemingly effortlessly. Furthermore Priest teaches you how to read his novel. The first section depicts a future world in a state of dramatic geopolitical instability due to accelerating climate change but the second section is narrated by a stage illusionist Tommy Trent who meets H.G. Wells on his way to the allied front during WW1. Priest immediately directs the reader to start identifying themes, contrasts and comparisons, between his possible future and the past(s) he evokes, as well as differences in voice, register and style amongst the different sections of the novel. He also wants you to ask why – why jump to WW1 and what kind of novel is this that does so (especially when you realise that this is the only section to visit that era)? In the paragraphs that lay out Tommy’s stagecraft the reader is also reminded of the novelist’s craft and techniques of subtlety, misdirection and defamilarization and, as he listens carefully to Wells, Tommy admits “my own mind was racing on all sorts of adjacent subjects”. This is undoubtedly a novel of adjacent subjects.

   BUT, as I read back those last few sentences I wonder if I make Priest’s novel sound trite. Aren’t these the things good literature is supposed to do? I can only say that the experience of reading The Adjacent is a fecund experience full of pleasure and unease as you continually make connections, ponder their significance and try to make sense of their place in the text - whilst always testing out their emotional and rational ‘power’ and their relevance to the ‘real’.  
   You might also find yourself unconvinced with regard to the novel’s structure and cohesiveness. Are some of the sections too divorced from each other? How much sense does it really make? Does the novel accrue weight and significance or does it feel too much like a game or a puzzle? The Adjacent draws attention to itself as a fiction and is thus a metafiction (as are all Priest’s novels), but a very bold and showy kind of metafiction. The breaks between sections are dramatic and mystifying. On one level Priest is showing you that you can only make sense of the text by attending carefully to the complexity of its construction – I think Clute calls it a ‘God game’, yet paradoxically some of the most powerful sections are when Priest evokes the reality of the world wars, the bravery and adventure of Krystyna, and the power of nature. This tension accounts for much of The Adjacent’s success. Priest is also brilliant at landscapes and their mood: on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think that it’s a strangely romantic and pastoral novel.

   Over the course of the novel two further things happen. First the sections in the future become more unsettling, strange and uncanny. The second is hard to quantify without some pretty rigorous textual analysis, but I think the language warms slightly, or to put it slightly differently the icy control of earlier sections loosens and thus helps the reader to embrace the finale.

   The Adjacent wants us to examine how we think about the world, to remember the past – the mistakes, the violence, the horror, but crucially to remember some of the saving graces in the face of that horror. The descriptions of environmental change in the future are brilliantly done, as are the descriptions of nature throughout the novel with which he invites comparison. That said I’d love to ask Priest about his future Britain because I think his Islamic Republic is a mistake, a bum note or a bad joke in a formidable symphony. I can easily imagine a Christian fundamentalism achieving hegemony in Britain or in other nations of the West as economic and environmental disaster precipitate change but the ongoing anti-Islamic propaganda in Britain makes it the most unlikely of futures imaginable. I have other issues but I don’t think I can resolve them without a second reading. For instance Priest brilliantly evokes the camaraderie and collective effort of the war years but I wonder if this is a little too romantic and the implications, conservative. Despite these doubts, and in part because of them, Priest’s novel is audacious, potent and quite brilliant.

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