Paul Di Filippo reviews Christopher Priest
The fiction writer must exhibit many virtues and talents to be acclaimed. The ability to create living characters; the ability to plot and pace; the ability to convey moods and emotions; the ability to describe reality; the ability to invent; the ability to report; the ability to philosophize and moralize and instruct; the ability to create symbols and allegories; the ability to create beautiful sentences and figurative language. There are more abstract virtues and qualities as well. Italo Calvino, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, famously explicated his six essentials as lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency. Samuel Delany has plumped for Begeisterung, inspiration, or literally “be-spirited-ness.”
But there is one talent that might rank as the most abstract and refined and demanding and, consequently, the rarest of all, and that is patterning. The ability to array incidents and characters and information and symbols in subtle, unobtrusive yet discernible interrelations that, upon reaching critical mass, suddenly cohere in the reader’s mind into a larger whole, a mosaic or tessellation or organic oneness that is akin to an epiphanical overview of all creation, a revelation of subtext or hidden numinous layers of meaning. Writers who can bring this off are indeed scarce. John Crowley, Paul Auster, Samuel Delany, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, David Mitchell, Thomas Pynchon.
And our subject today, Christopher Priest. Priest’s books—at least for the past few decades—have been all about patterning. Information is presented with utmost clarity and vividness, yet larger meanings are teasingly withheld, ultimate import remaining enigmatic, until everything clicks into place with brilliant precision. (Curiously, fewer American novelists work in this fashion, while many British writers such as M. John Harrison, Graham Joyce and Geoff Ryman seem enamored of it.)
Priest’s newest, The Adjacent, is another instance of this novelist’s dominant predilection or technique, and as with such recent triumphs as The Separation, The Prestige and The Islanders, the book is a both a marvel of craft and feeling, with the aloof, godlike technics being perfectly balanced by the emotional storytelling.
We open in a future not assigned any hard calendar year. Let’s call it roughly fifty years hence. By being presented first, this thread of Priest’s tale instinctively assumes a privileged position as the “dominant” one, and in fact the most wordage accrues to it. But still, a case can be made for all the novel’s timelines being equal in import. In any case, we are inhabiting a dismal future, where climate change and other sociopolitical disasters have rendered daily life massively different from our easygoing era. Now, you might think that you’ve seen such projections too often lately, but Priest renders his future unique and tangible with grace and insight and many droll touches. You know everything you need to know when you hear, “Do you have a license for that camera?” In other realms, England, the scene of our tale, is now subject to hurricanes. But to lessen the horror, they are dubbed “temperate storms” and given such classy names as “TS Edward Elgar.” And simply to travel from city to city takes many days in an armored vehicle. And most disturbing of all is a new kind of terror attack which might be an imposition of the weird “adjacency effect.” All matter within the blast zone is instantly wiped out, leaving a signature triangular scar in the earth.
Our point-of-view character is Tibor Tarent, a professional photographer who had been on assignment with his medico wife Melanie in Turkey. Melanie died in a small adjacency attack, and now back in England Tibor is immured in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy for official “debriefing.” While traveling the institutional circuit, he meets a mystery woman named Flo, who seems to hold out explanations about his plight and Melanie’s death.
The scene shifts next to World War I, where a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent (an avatar of Tibor Tarent?) is involved with a bizarre military R&D program. A fine walk-on by H. G. Wells adds to the thrills. But it’s a Wells we never knew, in uniform, alerting us to possible counterfactuality. The next small section introduces us to Thijs Rietveld, physicist discoverer of the adjacency equations—and also to a different avatar of Tibor. Next we journey to WWII, and a possible aviator ancestor/counterpart to Tibor’s lost wife Melanie.
Part 6 reunites us with Tibor in the mainline narrative or frametale. Still trapped in the net of classified governmental waystations, trying to get back to London, Tibor experiences major existential slippage here, raising the creepiness level and the stakes for his future and the world’s. Priest achieves an almost Ballardian affect and tone at times, especially in Tibor’s unsettling sexual relations.
No sooner have we been hit with these revelations than we are catapulted critically in the next section into Priest’s allied fictional universe, the Dream Archipelago, to meet one Tomak Tallant, photographer. Inversions, synchronicities, parallels, lateral shifts continue to accumulate. I should mention that many important secondary characters also figure into the blooming matrix of associations.
Our final section, Part 8, brings us back to the Tibor’s era, and a masterful weaving together—or is it an adjacency explosion?—of all the multidimensional tiles in the big picture.
I hope I have not made The Adjacent—and by extension, Priest’s other books—sound like mere head games, cerebral and arid jigsaw-puzzle exercises. They are anything but. At the heart of The Adjacent are multiple touching love stories, as well as deeply moving speculations on art, war, and the nature of civic interactions. Also, Priest can do pure pulp special effects. Consider this description of the adjacency weapon in action.
“The light-point suddenly exploded like a firework, shooting three angled white shafts of light directly down to the ground. They surrounded the Mebsher [armored car], one each of the light shafts striking the ground a short distance away from the wheels. A skeletal pyramid of white light surmounted the Mebsher, a perfect tetrahedron, and moments after it had formed it solidified into pure light.”
I maintain that this passage could be plucked from an Edmond Hamilton or Jack Williamson Golden Age tale. Or maybe you can envision it realized on the screen in some classic Roger Corman film. Priest does not disdain SF’s visual and speculative kicks in favor of some hoity-toity “literary” quality, but makes a vigorous hybrid of the two modes.
Ultimately, like real-life moments of satori, the essence of Priest’s books must be lived and not dissected. As Tarrant realizes about what has happened to him by the story’s end, “…there was no verbal or visual vocabulary to describe it.” The supreme paradox is that by Priest’s artful arrangement of words, we reach an awesomely wordless place.