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.

Acquired by Unsung Stories

I’m excited to announce that the first book in the Saskia Brandt series, Déjà Vu, has been acquired by George Sandison at Unsung Stories. This is a new imprint and I’m lucky to be one of the launch titles along­side m’colleague Aliya Whiteley.

I’m cur­rently work­ing on an updated edi­tion of Déjà Vu and, with any luck, I’ll be pub­lish­ing sequels Flashback and The Amber Rooms with Unsung too.

Exciting times.

Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose styl­ists of the twen­ti­eth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was pre­sum­ably a way to describe the most curi­ous steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the lan­guage of Shakespeare — another to be unaware how rich was the vic­tim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, an icon­o­clast, and a buf­foon of epic proportions.

A report of a cock­tail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went imme­di­ately to the liv­ing room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been look­ing for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like but­ting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The host­ess walked in from the kit­chen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; some­body do some­thing,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ring­side, said, “Shut up, this fight is mak­ing your party.”

Why did Mailer phys­ic­ally attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the lat­ter. Certainly it com­bined the duellist’s need for viol­ent sat­is­fac­tion, Mailer’s idea of releas­ing the dogs of his mas­culin­ity, and a deeper, mys­tic notion that unmet chal­lenges cre­ate a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, can­cer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excel­lent bio­graphy that, among other things, con­trasts the pub­lic Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while read­ing Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life look­ing for exper­i­ence. He did this, in part, because the chief dif­fi­culty for the nov­el­ist is obtain­ing mater­ial. Douglas Adams once wrote some­thing along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advant­age of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listen­ing to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is use­ful to a writer, you see — every scrap, even the longest and most bor­ing of lunch­eon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He com­ple­men­ted it with a liv­ing exper­i­ment in the pur­suit of exper­i­ence. Too often, he agreed to capers–like trav­el­ling to Russia on the prom­ise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of mater­ial. The drugs provided as much illu­min­a­tion as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writ­ing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a bar­bit­ur­ate], booze, cof­fee, and two packs of cigar­ettes a day, he began tak­ing a tran­quil­izer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched for­ward through May, feel­ing as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an exist­en­tial­ist, a philo­soph­ical school defined more by a push away from clas­sic ortho­doxy than the pull of well-argued altern­at­ives. The heart of exist­en­tial­ism, accord­ing to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repu­di­ation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and espe­cially of sys­tems, and a marked dis­sat­is­fac­tion with tra­di­tional philo­sophy as super­fi­cial, aca­demic, and remote from life

Mailer val­ued the primacy of exper­i­ence (as a truth, or some­thing closer to it that than the truth presen­ted by logical pos­it­iv­ism). The richer that exper­i­ence, the bet­ter. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, sec­tion 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruit­ful­ness and the greatest enjoy­ment of exist­ence is: to live dan­ger­ously! Build your cit­ies under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the per­spect­ive of the writer, there is value in this. If exper­i­ence is credit, woe betide the over­drawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recog­nise, in throw­ing out the baby with the bathwa­ter. It can lead to the some­what bizarre state­ments like Mailer’s com­ments in this inter­view with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in cat­egor­ies. I try to think in this way, that the world is bet­ter off if every so-called type in the world is bet­ter. In other words, it’s a bet­ter world when the cops get bet­ter and the crim­in­als get bet­ter. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the crim­in­als are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a trans­form­at­ive force. He was eager to assume the role of com­ment­ator and doer. His dis­tance from true power frus­trated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his over­tures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influ­ence on the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion was neg­li­gible. Mailer’s life seems to have coin­cided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. Today, our intel­lec­tu­als pro­duce BBC doc­u­ment­ary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these oppor­tun­it­ies. He always wanted to trans­mit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weak­ness of the arti­fi­cial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fun­da­mental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon pro­gramme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psych­ic­ally, is an accel­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to push human­ity from one sphere to another. And yet the mis­sions that fol­low (with the excep­tion of Apollo 13) are both iter­at­ive and bor­ing. The accel­er­a­tion has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon pro­gramme itself. For Mailer, this is the treach­ery of tech­no­logy. It appears to be freighted with pos­sib­il­ity but this prop­erty only emphas­ises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer work­ing through his manu­scripts with edit­ors, line by line, stop­ping at every weak sen­tence. While his poetry was unsuc­cess­ful in most estim­a­tions, he brought a poet’s atten­tion to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sen­tence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a para­graph or a pas­sage, and thus change the char­ac­ter of the pas­sage as a melody leads its key. The pas­sage would be writ­ten again.

And what pas­sages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every prom­ise (in the first glow of moon­light) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and bar­ley, sweat and hus­bandry. By noon tomor­row, the riverb­ank would be an oven of mol­der­ing reeds. Domestic anim­als would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the pluck­ing of a heavy string came a first intim­a­tion of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are dif­fi­cult to read. I was reminded of the com­ments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the doc­u­ment­ary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to com­pare him­self to Shakespeare. But to con­sider all that exper­i­ence, the wick burn­ing low before going out, is troub­ling. The point is to illu­min­ate the party.

This Writing Life