Thursday, 1 September 2011

Christopher Priest, The Islanders (2011)


It's an extraordinarily good piece of writing. Now, now, wait a minute. I hold Priest in high esteem as a writer.  He’s one of the authors the reading of whose novels (as a kid) inspired me to want to write myself. I’ve met him, too; on several publisher-party occasions, and he’s always been very cordial and encouraging towards me personally (he doesn't much like what I write, and has reviewed my stuff accordingly, but that's fair enough). This is by way of a rather roundabout full-disclosure; since fans rarely provide the disinterested objectivity vital to sound reviewing, however much they may try. Nonetheless, The Islanders seems to me one of the later Priest’s very best novels; beautifully put-together, absorbing and compelling as well as elegantly wrongfooting and soursweetly offkilter.

It is set in the ‘Dream Archipelago’, a planet-wide assortment of island communities, the scene of some of Priest’s best early stories, as well as his 1981 novel The Affirmation. My memory of the early short stories—since my house move, I can’t lay my hands on my old bashed-about paperbacks of An Infinite Summer and The Dream Archipelago to check, so my memory may be playing me wrong—is that the Archipelago used to have a more Aegean feel to it. In this latest novel, and although there are islands in every latitude, the broad flavour seems to me more Scandinavian, or Scots, especially in the book’s latter stages. It's not just the names (the theatre where a crucial crime is committed is the Teater Sjøkaptein, for instance), or the comfortable, Nordic-middle-class quality of life many of the characters enjoy.  It's also to do with the cool, even Bergmanesque tone of the writing itself. On the other hand Priest himself says, on his website:
the Archipelago itself is not a transplant from a single place, but is an amalgam. You can find archipelagian images and recollections of Guernsey and Sark, the Greek islands, Harrow-on-the-Hill, the French Riviera, the Harz mountains in Germany, Hastings, the Pennines, even Dartmoor and the Isle of Wight.
So I may be barking up what the Swedes call the wrøng trïï.  The novel takes the form of a gazetteer of islands in the Archipelago, 50 or so of them, from ‘Aay, the “Island of Winds”’ to 'Yannet' known as 'Dark Green' and 'Sir'. In listing the histories, flora, fauna, tourist spots and other interesting things about these various places, Priest starts to pick out a series of interlinked character narratives, mosaically assembling these from different contexts, and different perspectives, such that each new cell of the story changes our sense of the larger tale, its rights-and-wrongs, its meanings.  The Priestalike ('sacredocish'?) writer Chaster Kammeston is one, mysteriously opaque figure; and several other individuals are constellated around him.  Many of the specifics are recognisable mundane and contemporary, although there are a few (immortality for some, 'temporal distortion zones' and the like) which are more fantastical. But the focus is less on these.

One of the things I loved about The Islanders is that pretty much all the Priestian fascinations and preoccupations are here: doubles; mirrors; dreams; stage magic; the unreliability and instability of narrative, and several intriguing and underplayed metafictional touches (a young [female] novelist writes fan letters to a tetchily unpredictable Kammeston; when her first novel is published she sends a copy to him. It is called The Affirmation).  It coheres, or more precisely refuses quite to cohere, very stylishly indeed.

It's an archipelagic novel in more than one sense (always assuming that that word has more than one sense), formally embodying its scattered loosely connected strings of island subjects in a loosely connected strings of narratives. There's a distant family relationship with Borges, perhaps; or Ballard’s anthology of ‘condensed novels’ The Atrocity Exhibition. What else? Not so much Primo Levi’s Il Sistema Periodico (1975), which, although it adheres to its ‘Periodic Table’ structuring conceit, is a collection of separate short stories; where The Islanders is fully a novel. One book that did keep popping up in my head as I read is Milorad Pavić’s Hazarski rečnik (1984; published in English 1988 as Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel).  That novel is more modishly postmodern, and has less by way of connecting story, or indeed story of any kind. (At least, that’s my memory of it: I read it because it was a hip campus novel at the time when I was a university student myself, but 1988 is—now that I come to think of it—a frighteningly long time ago, and my memory may be wrong). I have heard of, but haven’t yet read, Han Shaogong’s widely-praised A Dictionary of Maqiao, although from reviews it looks like Priest’s novel has a little more in common with it. And Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is on my tbr pile.  The Islanders, though, has a very different mouthfeel to all of these titles.

We’re talking, really, about what the critics call Ergodic literature, a phrase coined by the Norwegian critic Espen J. Aarseth; or to be a little more precise, we're taking about novels that stir interesting patterns out of the mix of traditional narrative, and more freeform ergodic structures (many critics interested in ergodic narrative structures trace them through video games and hyperlink texts). The key thing, though, is books that 'produce a semiotic sequence which may differ from reading to reading'.  'Ergodic' not only from 'ergos', 'work', but also from 'hodos', 'path', you see.  We often think of narrative as a kind of path.  The Islanders presents itself to be read linearly, from start to end, and that's certainly how I read it. But the elements of the various narratives are not laid out in a linear sequence; they appear here and there, and I fitted them together into my larger sense of the story, having to revise my sense of what was going on and how people really were as I went (that creative tension between sjuzhet and fabula that's technically quite hard to do but which can be immensely satisfying to read) -- a little like Ford's The Good Soldier in that way, although much more kaleidoscopically rendered. One of the things that grounds this is precisely Priests' cool command of traditional style, world and character; and there's a scrupulousness with which everything is set out -- the doubleness and uncertainty of the book's treatment of naming, for example (most islands and many people have more than one name here) -- that only enhances the artfully fractured misdirection. As if to say: you think of a story as being like a journey, and maybe it is. But perhaps it's less like a march along a road, putting one step in front of the other like Bunyan's pilgrim progressing. Perhaps its like an odysseusing tour of a large group of islands, passing from one to another, losing track of time and orientation, visiting some several times, only glimpsing others, tantalisingly, in the distance. Stories are islands, and we, the readers, are the islanders; but the archipelago of story is far far too large for us to explore in its entirety, and although we roam widely and try our best, the accretion of our fuller perspective is still partial and fog-bound. And that's enough metaphors in this review for now.

In sum: The Islanders is a magnificent novel, one of my books of the year, and you must read it.

8 comments:

Serdar Yegulalp said...

You had me at "Christopher Priest." One of the most underappreciated authors working right now.

Mark Newton said...

Splendid review. Almost finished with the book now, and it's quite unlike anything I've read before, even Priest's own backlist.

I love that there are plenty of Easter Eggs within the text for fans, too.

Ruzz said...

In the same vein - or perhaps a parallel vein (as it were) - I would mention Geoff Ryman's 253, which remains one of my favourite novels of all time. 253 people of a tube train described in 253 words each, with (in the internet version) hypertext links that show the interconnections of lives, places, histories. Just wonderful.

Jonathan Barnes said...

Terrific review as always, Adam. Greatly looking forward to the book when it's released. Will be interested also in seeing what kind of coverage the broadsheets give it...

Eric said...

Wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër?

See the løveli lakes
The wøndërful telephøne system
And mäni interesting furry animals
Including the majestik møøse

Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretty nasti...

Weirdmonger said...

My real-time review of THE ISLANDERS: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/the-lslanders-by-christopher-priest/

Ian said...

Finishing it up right now and it is fascinating, deliberately frustrating,fiendishly well structured and the disimulation starts right from the dedication. Ilike the conceit that the narrative is only what it is because of alphabetic order --a mash-up novel, where you could remix the chapters, would give a totally different reading experience. But the bouquet lingers on the palatte.

Sarah said...

Belatedly, thanks for an illuminating review - I've nearly finished the novel and agree that it's very good, although perhaps not (for me) up there with Priest's very best. One novel it resembles a little in terms of teasing and self-allusive patterns is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas - and there's the same invitation to connect things within the novel - works of art, the islands themselves - with the book you are reading. I've been writing about Priest as part of a study of the relationship between allusion and the uncanny - and it's the relationship *between* all his works which particularly interests me.