JULY 15, 2013
IN ONE OF the sections of Christopher Priest’s 13th and latest novel, The Adjacent, a stage illusionist known as The Lord of Mystery meets H.G. Wells aboard a ship crossing the English Channel to Le Havre during the First World War. Both are engaged in secret missions to the Front to help the War effort and eventually go their separate ways — the illusionist to an airfield where he finds that he is required to provide a means of rendering reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the Germans.
After a sleepless night running through possibilities varying from camouflage to fastening mirrors to the planes’ undersides, he returns to first principles by thinking through the various means by which a magician misdirects an audience by either playing with or against their expectations. One such means is the use of adjacency in which an object is placed close to another, apparently more interesting object that distracts the audience and causes them to look in the wrong direction. The illusionist considers whether one aircraft might be placed adjacent to another and made interesting in such a way that the Germans would be distracted into firing at the wrong target:
“If the distraction were somehow illusory they would be shooting at something that did not matter, or at something that only looked as if it were there. It would be the wrong aircraft, or even not an aircraft at all. They would not be able to tear their gaze away from it, but at the same time they would not be able to see it properly.”
While the illusionist’s time at the Front ends bathetically soon afterwards, this literal flight of fantasy, in a book whose dust jacket is adorned with stylised images of Spitfires and Lancaster bombers from the Second World War, suggests the possibility that on one level Priest is a pilot-magician set on bamboozling his readership into shooting in the wrong direction, leaving him free to pursue his own seemingly enigmatic ends.
Indeed, so successful is Priest’s capacity for misdirection that his very presence on the literary landscape has tended to fade in and out over the years, with moments of high visibility such as his inclusion, alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie, as one of twenty writers to be featured as “The Best of Young British Novelists 1983,” or his award of the 1995 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Prestige, tending to be few and far between. His more general invisibility to critics and the media was encapsulated by a notorious piece that appeared in the Observer newspaper on 17 November 2002: “The 1983 Granta List: the list that defined a generation … but whatever happened to Christopher Priest… ?”. While he had not continued to match the productivity of the 1970s, which saw him publish five novels, two collections of short stories, and a couple of edited anthologies, he had published another five novels across the following two decades, and his eleventh, The Separation, had appeared only months before the article. Despite Priest garnering attention when The Prestige was filmed to critical and public acclaim by Christopher Nolan in 2006, however, he was not to publish another novel until The Islanders appeared in 2011. The publication of The Adjacent only two years later represents a significant upturn in his output.
Priest actually commenced writing The Adjacent, which began life as The Retreat, before The Islanders. In a journal entry on his website dated 9 August 2012 − marking the completion and delivery of the manuscript to his publishers − he explains how his progress on The Adjacent was interrupted by writing both The Islanders − including a period during which the two novels were being written simultaneously − and the stage-play version of The Prestige. It is not surprising therefore that despite the significant differences between these works, they share various motifs; notably, all three feature stage illusionists and death or serious injury resulting from a stage trick gone wrong. Furthermore, a crucial section of The Adjacent takes place on one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago, the setting for The Islanders, which is also featured in another earlier novel, The Affirmation, and a number of stories that have been collected as The Dream Archipelago. Other intertextual references within The Adjacent to the rest of Priest’s oeuvre include a passing reference to one of the twin brothers featured in The Separation and the above-mentioned inclusion of H.G. Wells, who also features as a character in his fourth novel, The Space Machine.
Despite these points of connection, however, it would be a mistake to group Priest’s works together into sequences or suggest that they should be read in any particular order. A more productive way of thinking about the relationship between the various novels, and one that is perhaps more in keeping with Priest’s design, is to consider them as a series of paintings that may potentially be displayed in various configurations at different types of exhibition, none of which would be definitive. Our understanding of any of the works is going to vary according to the relationship in which it is placed with the other works and, in particular, according to which specific work or works it is placed adjacent to. While any addition to Priest’s oeuvre would reconfigure all the existing relationships among, and meanings of, his earlier work, the fact that this latest novel contains so many explicit links to his other work and is called The Adjacent suggests that it might be especially significant in this respect.
Part of this significance lies in the extent to which the novel is nearly but never quite a full-blown work of SF. It opens with an apparently dystopian vision of the near future — the year 2036 is mentioned at one point — in which Britain is always referred to as the IRGB: the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Priest is not, however, concerned with portraying how this came about or how it operates or displaying the Islamic aspect of the society negatively. Indeed, a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, photographer Tibor Tarent, is checked in to a government facility by a woman in a burqa is played as a bureaucratic farce when it transpires that she cannot answer his questions due to having taken a vow of silence during daylight hours. The feel of this is not essentially different to British anti-officialdom humor of the immediate postwar decades, and Priest even recycles an old joke: the “restaurant” in the facility turns out to be a vending machine that displays a list of choices but only actually dispenses Spanish omelette.
Sections set in this time period — it would be unwise to label it the novel’s present as conventional ideas of temporality are called into question throughout the text — are interspersed with the trip to the First World War airfield described above, a series of encounters set around a Second World War airfield, which include a long flashback account of the fall of Poland in 1939 by a civilian female pilot, and the scenes set on the island of Prachous in the Dream Archipelago. This movement between dystopia, alternate history, and fantasy is initially unsettling because it is not linked logically or structurally in the manner, say, of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but eventually the reader realises that the sections are linked precisely by being adjacent and that it is possible to simply pass between them as the characters do. Here, SF, which at its best serves as a means to estrange everyday experience and challenge the restricted horizons of conventional subjectivity, is itself estranged or, rather, subjected to the use of adjacency.
At one point in the novel, adjacency is even theorized as a branch of quantum physics in the story of the Nobel laureate Thijs Rietveld and his discovery of the Peturbative Adjacent Field (PAF), characterised by the popular press as “The Weapon That Will End War.” PAF functions by diverting matter, such as an incoming missile, into an adjacent quantum dimension where it can do no harm. Rietveld imagines a utopian future in which cities, homes and “perhaps even every individual person, might one day be permanently protected from physical assault by a localized field of adjacency.” It is only a matter of time, however, before the process is adapted into a weapon that operates by diverting the cities, homes, and individuals themselves directly into the adjacent dimensions and thereby annihilating their presence from the world, causing Rietveld to retire disillusioned.
Priest does not dwell on the social commentary inherent to this story — in his novels the wrongness of the world is always assumed and merely forms the background to events — but instead focuses on seemingly tangential and absurdist extrapolations. For example, a young aircraft fitter experiences a “perturbing effect” when the female pilot next to him brushes her leg against his; a seemingly commonplace event but, as readers, we are seduced by the possibility that the narrative has shifted into a parallel dimension while simultaneously wondering if this is simply misdirection. When the 82-year-old Rietveld is interviewed by a journalist after years of retirement, the accompanying photographer — a younger incarnation of Tarent — takes a rapid sequence of him in his East Sussex garden, arms outstretched, holding a conch shell in one hand. On developing the prints, Tarent finds the first to show Rietveld with the shell in his right hand and the second to show the shell in his left hand, while in the third, Rietveld has a shell in each hand; but in the fourth he smiles at the camera with both hands empty. Such combinations of everyday sexuality and playfulness indicate an element of surrealism in Priest’s work. The way that the pictures of Rietveld and the shell are presented to us, however (as hanging on a wall arranged in one rectangular frame), suggest that he is more interested in the possibilities of perception opened up in a work like Magritte’s “On the Threshold of Liberty” than in Dali’s landscapes of the unconscious, such as “The Persistence of Memory,” which were so influential on the British SF writer Priest most takes after, J.G. Ballard.
The importance of perception is reinforced by Tarent’s status as a professional photographer who uses his “quantum lens” — there is some suggestion in the novel that it is photography itself that generates the PAFs — to interpret the world around him and put off the sense of being “untethered from reality.” Early in the novel, it is suggested that photography is an entirely passive activity that records events without influencing them but, towards the end, Priest qualifies this definition to one of “creative receptivity” — a capacity to see everything that is present without being distracted or misdirected. Whereas The Islanders finishes with a female reconfiguration of the universe as the notes of Jordenn Yo’s orgasm sing out from the island of Yannet and into the winds of the Dream Archipelago, The Adjacent closes with Tarent looking through his camera viewfinder taking rapid photographs of a beautiful woman while following her across time zones into a different, less dystopian version of the future. This is no retreat from holistic vision into the instrumentality of the male gaze, however, but rather an inversion of that gaze from active to creatively receptive, transforming it from a tool of subjugation to a means of entering the space of the imaginary made actual. Here, Priest recasts SF as a genre moving not away from but towards human reality, the outlines of which he makes perceptible in this glimpse of a possible world adjacent to our own.