The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Say what you will about Christopher Priest, one thing he can never be accused of is dumbing down his ideas to make them easier to understand. Hollywood may have simplified The Prestige for Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film version, depending greatly on the one big, final reveal, but Priest’s original work is always more subtle and more complex than that. He’s written over a dozen novels, won multiple awards and was on Granta’s 1983 Best of Young British Novelists list, alongside Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. Priest has always been a very ‘literary’ writer, regardless of the slipstream nature of his work. His latest novel, The Adjacent, is a complicated, intelligent and at times confusing book - there’s just no denying it. Many people may not admit to being confused at times by the multiple layers of the book, most of which are only hinted at. I see no shame in admitted this, though, since this is the nature of this particular beast.
The Adjacent features three distinct narratives - distinct, of course, until their boundaries shift and shimmer into one another, in that way only Priest can manage this well. Many of Priest’s familiar ideas and motifs appear here - metaphysics, duality, alternate or parallel realities and futures, war and magic. This is a complex puzzle made of pieces of Priest’s previous novels - many puzzles in their own right.
Priest begins with a slightly modified version of our present. Tibor Tarent is a photographer being transported to a government facility where he is to be briefed after the death of his wife in Anatolia. Melanie was a nurse working in conflict zones, in a world that is changed beyond what we know now, both politically (the UK is now The Islamic Republic of Britain but this is barely explored) and climatically (temperatures have risen unbearably, severe storms are common). Walking out of their secure compound, Melanie was caught in an explosion, a strange attack that left behind a ‘weirdly regular scar…three straight sides forming a perfect equilateral triangle, an inexplicable shape for a crater, with no sign of other wreckage, no blood anywhere, no human remains at all’. Her body is never found, and Tibor finds himself barely escaping a similar explosion once he is back in England.
But Priest does not want his readers to become too comfortable with the narrative. Suddenly, there is not just a change in setting and time, but also in perspective. He introduces us to a stage magician, through whose first person perspective we meet HG Wells, as both men head to the frontlines during WW1. The magician has been called in to use his craft to help disguise, or preferably make invisible, the planes used for reconnaissance missions. What he is able to come up with isn’t magic - it is what he calls an ‘adjacency’, a ‘sort of misdirection’. But in the sudden violence and chaos of war, his plan is never put to use, and he returns to London.
While we wonder how that part of the story effects Tibor’s, Priest introduces a third timeline and an entirely different cast of characters. It’s 1943, and a young female Polish pilot meets a RAF technician by sheer coincidence. She tells him her story, and of her great desire to fly a Spitfire plane, a ‘work of art’ created for photographic reconnaissance, out of the war and away from everything that has been her reality. She is mourning the loss of a loved one, a young man who may or may not be dead, someone she is at first mistakenly assumes the RAF technician to be, so similar are they physically.
This sense of deja vu, the idea of reconnaissance, of having been somewhere before, of having known someone before plays out repeatedly in The Adjacent, particularly in terms of relationships. Tibor and Melanie seem to be caught between two mirrors, with versions of themselves and their relationship reflecting backwards into what feels like all time. The idea of multiple versions of reality co-existing in adjacency becomes clearer when we are told that a Nobel prize winning physicist has developed what he hopes will be a way to end all wars, with ‘the Perturbative Adjacent Field’, which will use what ‘quantum physicists sometimes call annihilation operators’ and create ‘an adjacency field … to divert physical matter into a different, or adjacent, realm’. A missile, then, ‘need not be intercepted or diverted or destroyed – it could be moved to an adjacent quantum dimension, so that to all intents and purposes it would cease to exist.’ It is once this is revealed that Priest’s earlier reflections and refractions of reality begin to reveal themselves more clearly.
By the end of The Adjacent, Priest returns to a familiar fictional place, a place known to his fans and very clearly deeply understood by him: the Dream Archipelago, a set of islands with amorphous spatial and temporal borders. Priest has explored these islands previously in The Islanders, The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation, and in The Adjacent, he is at his most arresting when he writes about them. Of all the islands, Prachous is the ‘most fiercely independent’, though ‘neutral’, like the others. Immigration to the island is forbidden, yet there exists a strange shanty town called Adjacent, the largest town on the island, where ‘displaced people’ live in a settlement of a ‘thousand of makeshift dwellings …pitiful cabins crammed up against each side of the roadway, desperate assemblies of temporary materials: canvas or tarpaulin shrouds, corrugated sheets of rusting metal, old planks, concrete slabs, vehicle tires, pieces of broken branches’. Who are the inhabitants of Adjacent? How are they allowed to remain as they do, where they do? The slum is sought by others who are searching for lost loved ones, but it’s existence is never explained.
A great deal is never explained in The Adjacent, though the common thread through the narratives remains the search of a love lost. Pieces of the puzzle never quite fall together and even when you are certain you’ve got the right pieces lined up, you find that the edges are never quite even and the images on them appear to flicker and change. The borders and limits of reality, Priest seems to suggest, are never quite as solid as we think they are.