Meanwhile, in a Parallel Universe: The Adjacent

The Adjacent Cover

I had heard of Christopher Priest before see­ing the film The Prestige, but I had nev­er read his fic­tion. I enjoyed The Prestige and, watch­ing the DVD extras, was struck by what Priest said in an inter­view: he was impressed by the abil­ity of the film­makers to pro­duce cine­mat­ic ana­logues of the lit­er­ary meta­phors used in the nov­el. Priest soun­ded insight­ful, and I like the movie, so I ordered a battered paper­back of The Prestige from Amazon.

You can read my thoughts on the film in this post from March 2008, though there I’m mostly talk­ing about the prob­lem of ‘genre-shift­ing’ as ‘gear-grind­ing’. (From today’s per­spect­ive, hav­ing read the book and watched the film twice more, I see that the sci­ence fic­tion­al end­ing blends well with the thrill­er begin­ning.)

But I’m here to jot about The Adjacent. Normally, I’d begin with a syn­op­sis, but that would pre­sup­pose a nar­rat­ive, and this book isn’t really into nar­rat­ive; at least, not in the nor­mal sense of nar­rat­ive. Does that sound as much fun as mod­ern dance? Don’t worry. The absence of a narrative—or, at least, cam­ou­fla­ging it—does a good job of amp­li­fy­ing the meta­phors and themes of the work. These are repeated in dif­fer­ent ways: some­times overtly, some­times cov­ertly. They include dop­pel­gängers, the World Wars, immig­ra­tion, pho­to­graphy, and sleight of hand. But, above all, this is a love story. It reminded me of Iain Banks’s mas­ter­piece, The Bridge.

The Adjacent is com­pel­ling. It frus­trates, yes, because there is that sense of start­ing anew with each new nar­rat­ive thread. Priest’s great trick is to estab­lish these nar­rat­ive islands (in the meta­phor­ic­al sense) quickly. We soon con­nect with the ‘new’ char­ac­ters and, a couple of pages in, we are eager to con­tin­ue down their new rab­bit hole, the old one of only pages before already for­got­ten.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the dif­fi­culty presen­ted by par­al­lel worlds in fic­tion. One might argue that a com­pel­ling nar­rat­ive is one with plenty of wood behind the arrow; in oth­er words, the more ineluct­ably scene fol­lows scene, the more the read­er is com­pelled to con­tin­ue. When a nar­rat­ive is inter­rup­ted, it detracts from the main arc in many and subtle ways. Like a cur­tain com­ing down, it reminds the read­er that they are in the pres­ence of arti­fice; their inter­est­ing char­ac­ters have to be aban­doned; and, in these days, where books are read in smal­ler doses, there’s a nag­ging sense that one will lose track of what’s hap­pen­ing in a story.

Priest man­ages this situ­ation well. Indeed, he turns its dis­ad­vant­ages into the sig­na­ture advant­ages of this book, and this puts it well above the major­ity of the recent sci­ence fic­tion I’ve read. Throughout my exper­i­ence of the book, I was reminded of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore, in which a sim­il­arly broken nar­rat­ive is presen­ted, but much less suc­cess­fully; Murakami appears to get lost, or lose track. Priest does not.

Parenthetically, The Adjacent also nags me about my own book, The Amber Rooms (cur­rently unavail­able but soon to be pub­lished, fin­gers crossed, by Unsung Stories), where I tried to do some­thing sim­il­ar: for some read­ers I was suc­cess­ful, for oth­ers I was not. The Adjacent has giv­en me an insight into how to keep the audi­ence hooked. It is a great piece of lit­er­ary sci­ence fic­tion.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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