This review contains spoilers.
The Adjacent is the second Christopher Priest novel I’ve read; the first was The Islanders, a gazetteer of the fictional Dream Archipelago which hides a murder mystery and a love story. The Islanders was a story about liminality, isolation, art and the constriction of landscape; it was fun in a geeky way, but also possessed of a delicious and somehow melancholy menace.
The Adjacent is…some of these things, but none so successfully. The novel opens in the IRGB, the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Our Hero is Tibor Tarent, a photographer recently returned from an Eastern Anatolia ravaged by climate change-induced drought and terrorism. His wife Melanie has been killed by a weapon that leaves a perfect triangular crater of blackened earth; nothing else. Back in the IRGB, much of north-west London has been ravaged by a similar weapon. Tibor is directed around the country by unnamed officials, for nebulous debriefings, through a landscape afflicted by violent storms and unspecified oppression.
Then the narrative shifts to WW1: a stage magician is summoned to the front to help the Allied forces disguise their planes so the Germans won’t shoot at them any more.
Then, again: WW2, a young RAF man meets a Polish female pilot who he quickly becomes besotted with. He looks her up much later in life, and finds that her family history doesn’t quite check out.
Then: Tibor again, in a kinder England, meeting a scientist who’s devised what he thinks is the end to all wars.
Then: a man crossing a strange desert with an enigmatic woman. He can’t remember how he got there.
Then: a woman searching one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago for her lost love…
…you get the idea. It’s a sort of sub-Cloud Atlas thing: a set of stories nebulously connected, with eerie echoes and half-connections that you clutch at but never exactly grasp. We intuit that the stage magician and the RAF man and the man in the desert are all versions of Tibor. There are also several versions of an enigmatic woman who won’t reveal anything of herself but really wants hot no-strings sex with Tibor and his sub-versions. There are lots of mentions of triangles. Several definitions of “adjacent”. An abiding interest in utilitarian vehicles and how they move through the landscape.
Which is undoubtedly all very interesting. But what is it for?
Adam Roberts suggests that it’s all a big stage trick: Priest distracts us with these tantalising connections, these various versions of history and the future, in order to return Tibor’s dead wife to him without us raising an eyebrow.
This is a convincing reading. It’s certainly more convincing than anything I’ve come up with. But it kind of depends on how invested we are in Tibor as a character, and in his relationship with Melanie. It’s also structurally problematic, in that it constructs Melanie as a thing, a plot device, a cipher: she has no existence in the novel except through Tibor’s memories, and so bringing her back can only be about him, not about her.
And I didn’t find Tibor a compelling enough character to overlook this. I think this is partly deliberate: some play is made with the idea that Tibor, as a photographer, is a passive observer, unable to intervene in the situations he records. And that’s similar to how we experience the novel: we chase down a nebulous concept of truth by observing, by reading, but we can’t intervene. The truth always recedes away from us, into the interstices between each narrative, the missing Polish woman, the memories of the man in the desert, NW6, a tower at a military facility in the IRGB that flickers in and out of existence. There’s always that indefinable, unresolved something missing, unexplained; the nebulous Real which cannot be found or recorded or pinned down in its entirety.
I enjoy this sort of thing in a novel, usually; I love art that records the numinous, the things that lie beyond explanation and rationalisation, what Todorov would call the Fantastic. The adjacent, you might say. But…I also don’t have much patience for Priest’s unexamined Islamophobia (Islamic Britian as Orwellian dystopia) or his insidious sexism, the way the women in his narratives are reduced to ciphers for the men to chase. (An exception is the narrative set in the Dream Archipelago, which is written from the point of view of a woman; not coincidentally, this is the best part of the novel.) The world(s) of The Adjacent is (are) too thinly imagined; there are far more absences than the ones Priest actually wants us to look at. That’s why, I think, I can deal with sexism in things like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, both of which channel ideas of the Fantastic that are similar to those in The Adjacent: these worlds are rich and lush with fecund, rotting detail, the better to point up the glaring absences at their hearts. I want to be hypnotised by the Fantastic; I want it to draw me down into the depths of its unknowns. The Adjacent just didn’t do that for me.