It was the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Willem van Eeden who coined the term “lucid dream”, a term that’s come to mean dreaming while knowing one is dreaming. It seems an apposite term to deploy when trying to describe the experience of reading The Adjacent , a book where realities nest inside each other like Russian dolls that, confusingly, can’t quite seem to settle on their respective sizes.
It begins with the story of a photographer, Tibor Tarant, returning to a near-future Britain from Turkey. He’s traumatised, a widower following the death of his wife, Melanie. The Britain he finds is falling part, battered by increasingly unpredictable weather and, we’ll later learn, the threat posed by a new form of terror weapon.
As Tarant travels through the country in an armoured “Mebsher”, we’re offered a nightmarish view of what lies ahead, a vision that in itself could easily be the basis for a more conventional, linear novel. But instead of exploring this world further, Priest abruptly switches narratives. In the second section of the book, he takes us to the First World War, and a meeting en route to the Western Front between a stage magician and an eminent science fiction novelist.
As to the wider significance of what both men see and learn on their journeys, well, it’s left hanging. The sense of displacement this induces will become an increasingly familiar feeling as Priest refuses to settle on just one plot.
Uneasiness rules, which actually isn’t an unwelcome sensation. Just the opposite. In an era when slipstream fiction - in so far as the term is still used at all - all too often turns out to mean an airport thriller with a few bits of cool tech chucked in to keep things interesting, The Adjacent is a slipstream novel in the sense Bruce Sterling intended when he rather vaguely described “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the 20th century [for which read 21st century, things move on] makes you feel”.
If that all sounds rather oblique, the clue is the title. Much of the strangeness of The Adjacent stems from it being a novel where the moments of greatest importance aren’t necessarily placed squarely in front of the reader. Instead, the main action - for want of a better description - often seems to be taking place somewhere off to one side of the page. But Priest isn’t being tricksy. It’s not that what you’re reading at any point isn’t significant in the development of the book, it’s more that its significance may not be immediately apparent. The proof of this is the way that, gradually, as the novel’s finale approaches, it becomes increasingly apparent that Priest knows precisely where the heart of his story lies.
This is, by the way, another way of saying that The Adjacent is a love story, just as all the best stories are. But that seems an inadequate description, because it’s also a book about the effects of forced exile and war on the human spirit; about Lancaster bombers, sporty Spitfire spy planes and the freedom of flight; about quantum weirdness and quantum terror weapons; and, because this is a Christopher Priest novel, about conjuring tricks and the islands of the Dream Archipelago. There may even be a running gag about the Bermuda Triangle. .
Most importantly of all, while you might identify fellow travellers (M John Harrison and, from a different literary generation, David Mitchell spring immediately to mind), The Adjacent is proof that Priest, now in his late ‘60s, is still in his pomp, a unique voice. One of the best novels of the year.
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