What happens when a highly regarded author with a penchant for weird science fiction has too many ideas and not enough book to put them in? Probably something like The Adjacent.
Christopher Priest’s novels often dwell on themes of illusion, magic and mirroring. Priest’s most well-known novel is arguably The Prestige, a book about feuding magicians who will do anything for their craft, which was adapted into a well-regarded film starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. But Priest has had a prolific career writing novels that wend their way through dreamlike realms, where magic, duplicates, and altered realities are the norm. The Islanders, which I read and wrote about last year, is one such book. The Adjacent is another.
In The Adjacent, reality itself becomes the subject matter of Priest’s thematic preoccupations. Adjacency, as a concept, is featured in the book – characters, people and places are displaced through time, space, and reality. The island-strewn world Priest created in The Islanders makes a major appearance as the other reality complementing our own. Characters become adjacent to themselves, their alternate selves, alive or dead, co-existing in the same possibility space.
While this might sound like an intriguing concept on paper, when played out across a narrative continuum of a single, overarching plot, The Adjacent comes across as an incoherent jumble of different stories tied together by the tenuous thread of adjacency.
The book mainly features three plotlines, across three loose time/space/reality periods: one in a climate-ravaged future Earth, in which Great Britain has (for no apparent reason) become an Islamic Republic ruled by sheikhs, one during WWII, and one taking place in the alternate reality dream-realm of Prachous, an island in the Dream Archipelago. There is a medley of characters that feature these three realms, and are, for some reason, supposed to be loosely “adjacent” to one another. They flit across these periods and somehow “become” their alter egos as they cross from one realm to another.
There is really no perceivable thematic or literary significance to these linkages at all. Why are these characters adjacent to each other? How can they become each other as they flit through realities? These questions are never answered or even broached. It’s almost as if Priest had ideas for three or four different books but didn’t feel like pursuing them, so he chucked them into a single book and linked them together with a tenuous application of plot contrivance masquerading as ‘adjacency’. The result is one of Priest’s more desultory efforts; a book that reads more like a messy compilation of short stories from Priest’s various literary creations, including the Dream Archipelago. Indeed, it incorporates many elements of other, contemporaneous works, including the fixation on illusions in The Prestige and the dream-like irreality of The Islanders. And unlike The Islanders, whose island-vignettes often featured interesting plotlines, The Adjacent’s characters and plots never develop far enough to capture the reader’s interest outside of their relationship to the overarching web of adjacency.
It’s a shame, too, because, by themselves, the individual plot lines take place in intriguing settings. Most compelling is the vision of a near-future Earth ravaged by extreme storms, where armored cars trundle across a blasted English landscape roving with armed insurgents: a radically different political and social order than our own. However, we are never really told how Earth got into that state of affairs, or indeed, the broader societal dynamics of this future world. It’s a shame that Priest has decided to use this compelling premise as mere stage dressing upon which to hang a tenuous plot, without delving slightly deeper into that vision.
In sum, The Adjacent has the same tenuous grip on reality as The Islanders, although the latter novel, at least, has the decency to take place in a single space-time continuum. But what makes The Adjacent a more frustrating read than The Islanders, is its cavalier disregard of the strictures of plot, setting and character in service of a self-indulgent postmodern dance of dream-states, deception, and irrealities.
I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 Spitfires