The Adjacent brings us up to date. It is Christopher Priest’s most recent novel, published in 2013, astonishingly only two years after his previous book. Priest has, however, referred in interviews to having had both projects in mind for several years, sometimes almost working on them both simultaneously.
This is only the second time I have read this book, having treated myself to a copy as a late Xmas self-present, and having ignored it since then whilst I continued this project. Much of the story had stuck with me, but a second reading, without the element of surprise, has helped me get a proper grip on the book as a whole.
More than any of Priest’s previous works, I think The Adjacent cannot be approached without a lineal account of the book, which is divided into eight parts, crossing a number of realities, and in which vivid elements familiar from other books in Priest’s career play substantial roles: to a degree, The Adjacent is something of a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits!
The book is divided into eight parts, each of which represents a change in reality. The danger, as always, with Priest is in picking a ‘parent’ or primary reality, and treating all diversions from that state as, in one form or another, illusions. Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming urge to take Tibor Tarent’s story as our baseline. His account takes up four of the eight Parts, tops and tails the novel, is the constant thread to which the book keeps returning. But as we know, that is a dangerous assumption to make.
Tarent, in his late thirties, is a photographer, born in England of Hungarian and American parents. His story takes place an indeterminate amount of time in the future, in a Great Britain that is now an long-established Islamic Republic, which is fighting a losing war with advanced terrorism and which is slowly being devastated by Climate Change, in the form of excessive storms sweeping across the country every few days.
Tarent has been overseas for some time, posted to a Turkish refugee hospital camp where his wife, Melanie, worked as a nurse. The pair still loved each other, but the situation they were in was imposing severe strains on their marriage, which were ended abruptly by Melanie’s sudden death in a mysterious terrorist attack. Tarent has been summoned back to a Dictatorship style Britain, which takes the form of an authoritarian but incompetent bureaucracy, to be debriefed.
In Part 1, Priest introduces Tarent and his near future (‘fifty’ years later?). Tarent is recently widowed, the loss of Melanie still raw. As we gradually learn more details, from what he both tells and doesn’t tell her parents, we realise that her death stems from a highly localised Adjacency attack, even though we do not, as yet, understand Adjacency in this reality.
Tarent is travelling, under Government direction and control, to a base in Lincolnshire, at Warne’s Farm, where he is to be debriefed. After visiting his parents-in-law, he is taken to London. In West London (specifically Notting Hill, we later learn), the car’s windows are darkened, preventing him from seeing out, except for a few, brief seconds in which he sees a flattened, blackened area of total destruction. This, we later learn, is the scene of a much wider Adjacency attack.
From London, he travels north, slowly, in a Mebsher, a military transport vehicle, heavily armoured, with confined space inside. His travelling companions are officials of the Muslim regime, and ignore him throughout. The journey is dull and tedious, and Tarent’s only relief is in the photographs he continues to take, an obsession with documenting what he sees around him.
One of the officials is a woman whose head is concealed with a headscarf. She is sat in front of him, allowing him to see that she frequently fiddles with an area of skin just behind her left ear, where she has some form of information implant. En route, she surprises him utterly by pressing a small, folded square of paper into his hand as they disembark. It’s a very schoolroom form of messaging, especially in this future, and – perhaps fittingly – it is a proposition. The woman wants him to travel with her to her ultimate destination in Hull: she can override his instructions to report to Warne’s Farm.
Tarent is disturbed by the contact from an absolute stranger. The situation is further exacerbated when she visits him in his room that night. The woman, who will not give her name, but eventually instructs him to call her by a family name of Flo, is a senior official with great powers. She also has physical needs that she must indulge discretely. She wants Tarent for sex, both here and in Hull (sex in Hull: a romantic proposition indeed!).
Flo is also interested in Tarent because he has had a past association with Professor Thijs Rietvald, known as the inventor of Adjacency. The name is meaningless to Tarent, who disavows any connection with the man.
Though he makes love with Flo, Tarent is indecisive about what to do, and afterwards feels guilty about betraying Melanie, so soon after her death. In the end, despite Flo’s persuasions, he decides to go to Warne’s farm.
Tarent’s story has been, and will continue to be told in the third person.
In Part 2, the scene shifts back over a century. This section is told, in the first person, by Thomas “Tommy” Trent, better known as Mysterioso, or the Lord of Mystery. Trent is a stage magician, an illusionist. Recently, after a performance during which he made his girl assistant disappear, he was approached by a young airman, eager to learn the secret, which Trent refused to disclose. Now, he is on his way to France, temporarily commissioned, and summoned to a camp near the Front.
Trent has no idea why he has been thus summoned, or what is expected from him. On a crowded troop train, he is summoned to relative luxury in the Guard’s van, which he shares with another commissioned civilian who gives his name as Bert, though it comes out that he is actually H G Wells, on a similar mission, albeit to test an idea he has already submitted to the authorities.
Trent arrives at his destination to be welcomed by the young airman, Simeon Bartlett. When he arrives at his base, he discovers that his sponsor is a spotter pilot. To survey the German lines, the planes have to fly quite low, making them vulnerable to enemy fire.
To his horror, Trent realises that Bartlett wants him to come up with a way of making the planes invisible! Away from the carefully designed stage, this illusion is impossible, but Trent does apply his mind to whether there are any techniques that can give some sort of cover. He muses up Adjacency, the magician’s art of placing distracting objects near to whatever he intends to manipulate, relying upon those to hold the audience’s attention.
In the morning, when being shown the aircraft by Bartlett, Trent is approached by the Station Commander. He does not approve of Trent, accusing him of being some jumped-up amateur with delusions of saving his country, and ordering him to stay out of the way of the pilots. Trent is rattled, but there is worse to come: Bartlett’s plane stalls and crashes, burning him and his observer to death in front of Trent. Sickened by what he has seen, Trent loses all confidence and, based on the Commander’s orders, leaves the base to return to England, technically deserting.
On his return to England, he bumps into Wells again, also returning in disgust, but for a different reason: his idea has been adopted, been out in use, but not only is he not acknowledged, the Army refuses to admit the device exists, even with it there in front of them. The two part, and never meet again.
Part 3 returns to Tarent. He decides to leave the Mebsher at Warne’s Farm in accordance with his orders. He is dropped off on a ridge within walking distance, whilst the Mebsher circles round to return to the road. Almost immediately he changes his mind, but before he can signal, the Mebsher is enveloped in a pyramid of light – an Adjacency attack – and is utterly destroyed, along with its passengers. Soldiers come out from Warne’s Farm to investigate, but Tarent avoids them and makes his way there alone.
Inside the camp, he enters a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. The receptionist is a burka-wearing woman who has taken a vow of silence, his reporting officer, Captain Lepuits, does not want to know him, the debriefing officers have been sent away as they were instructed Tarent was going to Hull, not here. He is assigned a room that proves to be occupied already by a woman in her late twenties who, entirely understandably, refuses to let him in. After several, desperate attempts to get something sorted, Tarent takes the advice of the obstructive woman, Louise ‘Lou’ Paladin, to try his electric key on one of the unoccupied rooms, where at least he can sleep.
In the morning, he wakes to find her watching him, a little more friendly than before. His key has given her access to information about Tarent and who he is, and she has called to repay the compliment. That night, the camp is hit by yet another massive storm.
Part 4 is told in the first person by former journalist Jane Flockhart, about an interview that was never published. The interview was with Rietveld, an elderly, retired man. Flockhart asks about Adjacency from the point of view of someone scientifically ignorant. It is here that we get the clearest, most explicit explanation of Adjacency, though this is still couched in vagueness.
The technology was intended as purely passive, defensive, involving the creation of an Adjacency field that allows any personal attack, of any kind, to be deflected into an adjacent dimension. However, more focussed minds have turned Adjacency into an aggressive tool, seemingly by physically shifting areas into another dimension, leaving behind complete and utter destruction.
Flockhart’s photographer is Tibor Tarent, though not necessarily the Tarent of the ‘parent’ sequence, since his experience is something that it is unlikely he would have ever forgotten. Whilst Flockhart watches from the house, Tarent and the Professor set up in the garden, Rietveld carrying a distinctive pink ball.
The interview is destined never to be used, because Professor Rietveld commits suicide that night. But Tarent still attends Jane at her office, bringing with him the pictures. These, taken over a few moments, show Rietveld’s pink ball moving from hand to hand, appearing and disappearing. But when Tarent was taking the photos, the ball never changed position at all.
Part 5, instead of returning to Tarent, introduces a new setting and character. Mike ‘Floody’ Torrance is an RAF groundcrew member based at Tealby Moor in Lincolnshire. He aspired to being a pilot but was simply too tall to fit a cockpit. Nevertheless, he is an essential member of a close-knit bomber unit, carrying out frequent missions and suffering distressing losses of men.
New aircraft are delivered to Tealby Moor by civilian pilots from the Air Transport Artillery (ATA). One day, when inspecting the cockpit of a new plane, Torrance discovers an ornate wallet, left behind. He forgets to hand it in for return and becomes mildly obsessed with it. Finding a telephone number inside, he makes a call hoping to reach the pilot so he can arrange to return the wallet, and is stunned to find that it is a woman pilot, an escapee from Poland, Krsytina Roszca. She is immensely grateful for news that her wallet has not been lost and, in gratitude, arranges that when she is next posted to Tealby Moor, Torrance is taken off duty to enable her to treat him to a flight.
Both Torrance and Krystina are shocked at their meeting. Torrance simply falls in love with Krystina: for him, the rest of the day he spends with her, flown across country, alone with this woman, talking at great length, is a tragedy as it becomes apparent that she has no interest in him. But for Krystina, the shock is almost more: Torrance is the exact duplicate of her presumed dead Polish fiance, Tomasz Lowicz.
During the day, she tells Torrance her story in great detail. It is embedded in the middle of this Part, in the first person, as written by Torrance from memory, ten years later, in peacetime. Krystina’s account is of being taken from her peasant family when young to be the playmate of Tomasz, the heir to Count Lowicz. Years alter, Krystina is allowed to accompany the clearly fearful Tomasz on flying lessons, discovering her own innate ability and overwhelming love for flight. However, when the two young people declare their love for one another, and their intent to marry, the family turns on her.
Their relationship is torn apart by the German invasion. Tomasz joins a cavalry regiment, Krystina becomes a pilot. She last sees him in the midst of a shelling of their home town: Tomasz disappears, probably killed. Krystina escapes, making her way eventually to England.
Despite Torrance’s hopes, Krystina is still in love with Tomasz. She talks to him of her hopes and fears, describes how she dreams of getting to fly a Spitfire, and the feeling of being able to soar into the sky, above the clouds and fly forever, but the most she will allow is to ask him to call her by her mother’s pet name, Malina.
Torrance returns to duty, still hopeful of contact with Krystina. After several months, he is growing anxious that he has neither seen her return to the airfield, nor can he contact her by phone. Eventually, he beards an older, male pilot from ATA and asks him to make enquiries. The outcome is that he is summoned to a meeting where he is solemnly advised that, about six months earlier, Krystina went missing, presumed dead. She was delivering a Spitfire and apparently went off course crossing the Thames estuary. Torrance thinks of her words about flying into the sky and flying forever.
After the War, Torrance marries, has children, builds a career. In 1955, he writes out Krystina’s story as already given. In later life, he becomes a historian, writing books about the War. Not until his wife dies, when he is in his Seventies, does Torrance consider Krystina as a subject for one of his books. He travels at last to Poland, to research her life as related to him. There is no record of her, or of Count Lowicz and his family, not even in the town where their estates were held.
Part 6 returns to Tarent. In the aftermath of the storm, he develops a fever, and has to be nursed by Lou Paladin for several days. They talk about their backgrounds, and Tarent discovers that she is just as lost and isolated as he is. Her ex-partner lived in Notting Hill before the attack.
At night, Tarent sees a Mebsher brought in. various bodies are unloaded from it, on stretchers, and he can see oxygen masks in use. This is a hopeful sign, although he is convinced that the Mebsher was utterly destroyed.
However, a couple of days later, he is approached by Captain Lepuits, who is seeking his assistance to identify a body. Five corpses are in the refrigeration unit and Tarent is needed to identify that of Flo, or Tebyab (Doctor) Mallinan. As a condition of his aid, without which the corpses cannot be moved on, Tarent compels Lepuits to agree that both he and Lou will leave on the next transport that visits Warne’s Farm. On that basis, he identifies the body of Flo, within the limits of the little he knows of her, and also those of the other four bodies.
In a corner of the room, Tarent sees a sixth coffin, with objects piled in front of it. He volunteers to identify that body, if he can, but is assured by Lepuits that it is not necessary, that it has been satisfactorily identified already.
That afternoon, Tarent goes for a walk around the camp with his cameras. By trial and error he determines what he can and can’t photo without the guards reacting. Eventually, he becomes fascinated by an old and crumbling tower, which he examines at close range. Mysteriously, the tower, despite its height, seems to be visible only from certain places. When he tries to discuss this with Lou, despite her having been longer at Warne’s Farm than he, she cannot seem to picture where it is. More unusually, when Tarent downloads his pictures from online, the tower does not appear in any.
As evening approaches, a Mebsher arrives at the camp. Tarent and Lou packs their things and go out to join the transport. Six coffins are being loaded into its storage. One passenger, a hijab-clad woman who appears to be an important individual, is complaining about delays as she is travelling to an important meeting in Hull. Tarent is shocked to recognise the two drivers as the two Scottish muslims who drove his Mebsher. Neither of them recognise him, or show any sign of knowing him.
The woman in the hijab is Flo. When Tarent approaches her, she too does not recognise him and is completely hostile. She is suspicious of him knowing her official and family names, and, using the equipment lodged behind her left ear, erases various permits Tarent he retains from Turkey.
Lou enters the Mebsher. Tarent is about to follow her when he sees a man standing inside, a man with three cameras dangling from his neck. In horror, he backs away. He now realises who is in the sixth coffin.
So far, though it has moved about in time, the story has taken place on a recognisable future or past Earth. Abruptly, Part 7 removes to the Dream Archipelago, and in particular the Island of Prachous. Three times, gazetteer entries on Prachous, in the form of those in The Islanders are given, focussing on aspects of the island regime that correspond to the meanings of differing patois names. Each is followed by a story.
The first meaning is Fence. Two people, a man and a woman, leave a desert encampment to make a journey. His name is Tomak Tallant and he is a photographer. The woman, his guide, used to the route, is wholly detached, refusing to respond to conversation. She dresses in missionary garb and gives no name, calling herself a Speaker of the Word. They travel together only in body. Tallant takes copious photos of her on their journey.
When they reach a shanty town, and take rooms, they finally have a conversation in a bar, where the woman expounds on her religious duties and beliefs. She tells Tallant that she can only speak her name once in public, and wishes to be known only by her title. As Tallant leaves, she says something that he cannot hear: when he returns, she says it was her name, which she cannot now repeat, ever.
Nevertheless, after Tallant returns to his room, the Speaker joins him, dressed in loose clothing. Her vows do not commit her to chastity, and she has physical needs that she wishes to slake with him. because they are in private, she can tell him her name, Firentsa.
After they make love, Firentsa asks Tallant about his plans and his memories. The shanty town is called Adjacent and it is the biggest city on Prachous, a vast camp of people who arrive, continually, without seeming to travel. She asks if Tallant can remember where he was before beginning his journey across the desert. Save that he believes he was here with his wife, Tallant cannot.
They make love again. Tallant thinks of the journey ahead, of approaching the coast. He wishes he could remember his wife’s name.
A second gazetteer entry focusses on the patois name Revenger, and explains how it applies to policing. Punishment, it appears, is carried out by way of a licenced feud, with the victim allowed to respond in kind.
The second story, again in the third person, focusses upon a would-be illusionist, Thom the Thaumaturge. Thom is struggling to get a theatre to give him bookings: magic is old hat, not popular. Meanwhile, he is being followed by a young, dark-haired woman. She does not approach him, or try to speak to him, but every day, when he goes to his open air cafe, she is there at another table, staring at him.
More amused than anything at her persistence, Thom works on developing a major illusion, a disappearing act centred upon the Indian Rope Trick. He advertises for a girl assistant and is approached by the wealthy, well-established Gerres Huun and his daughter Rullebet. Rullebet is a young, intelligent, agile and athletic girl, bound for university in the autumn but eager to participate in this trick. Her widowed father is protective of her. A deal is struck, and Rullebet proves to be a very apt performer. Rehearsals go on every day until the trick is perfected. Thom persuades a theatre to give him a week’s booking, trading on Huun’s name and connections.
The week goes well, despite Thom’s concerns at the backstage staff, who are lazy and disinterested, an unwelcome combination for a magician’s act.
On the final night, Thom’s concerns grow about loose and dangerous wiring that the staff refuse to work on. The theatre is crowded but he gets a very good reception, until the final act. This does not go according to plan. Worse, when Rullebet climbs the rope to its top, there is a coruscating flash and she falls to the stage, killed by the combination of electrocution and the fall.
Numbed at her loss, Thom is aware of what will be his fate. He attempts to defend himself, to lay blame where it is due, on the Theatre’s negligence, but neither the police nor Huun accept this. He is pronounced guilty and sentence left to the crowd. This means that he will be kicked and beaten to death.
To his surprise, two women get onto the stage and try to defend Thom. One is the mysterious woman who has been watching him, the other a tall, strong woman, dressed as a missionary. The crowd does not respect their gender: both are beaten and kicked into unconsciousness. Thom is killed.
The women, neither of whom knew each other, who never met again, and who each assumed the other had died, were badly injured but recovered. One was a Speaker of the Word, the other was named Krystenya. Both subsequently escaped from Prachous.
The third gazetteer story, focussing on the patois name Closure, moves into the first person. It is told by Krystenya Rosscky, though she admits this is not her true name. She is searching for her lost love Tomak, a reservist, who she believes to be on Prachous. Krystenya has arrived by a plane, which is impounded. The Prachous authorities believe her to be a pilot from one of the warring nations of the northern continent, and the Covenant of Neutrality holds strong here.
Krystenya, who legally adapts the protective colouring of an Archipelagan name of Mellanya Ross, searches diligently for Tomak for months, without success thanks to the Prachoit bureaucracy. Gradually, she relaxes into island life though, when a briefly-friendly neighbour, Luce, mentions Adjacent, Krystenya redoubles her efforts to get to it and seek out the probably wounded Tomak.
She adapts to Prachous further, moving home, taking a job, volunteering backstage at a theatre. Then she sees Tomak, or rather Thom the Thaumaturge, his double.
She begins to follow him,unable to decide if it is Tomak or not. He sees her but doesn’t approach, confusing her further. She sees him go off daily with an attractive young woman, though it is not until she is approached by Huun that she finds out the real story. Nevertheless, Krystenya cannot stop following Thom, even after he confronts her and threatens her with the Police, and civic revenge, as a stalker.
Things differ in this story. Huun’s name is Gerred, not Gerres, and the young woman is Ruddebet, not Rullebet. And on the last night at the Theatre, there is no electrocution: Ruddebet falls, but only suffers fractures. Krystenya gets onto the stage, claiming to be a nurse, whilst the tall, strong woman says she is a doctor.
There being no death, there is no civic revenge against Thom. Nevertheless, the two women exchange details. The ‘Doctor’ was once qualified but no longer practices: she is now a missionary, and her name of Firentsa Mallinn.
The incident accelerates Krystnya’s plans to leave in her plane. After a test flight to ensure it is still working, she secures complete refuelling by filing a false flight plan. She then takes the Spitfire into the skies, intent on flying away.
Before leaving Prachous, she heads towards Adjacent. As she quarters the zone where it supposedly exists, the ground is different at each pass: uninhabitable wetlands, a destroyed Adjacency zone, a city appearing and disappearing. Finally, she sets her course above the clouds, at maximum fuel efficiency and flies away into the sky, on the bearing on which she flew in.
After passing through a major stormfront, Krystenya finds herself being menaced by Fokke-Wulf 190s. After evading these, she finds herself over unknown land, running low on fuel, seeking somewhere to land.
The final Part returns to Tarent, as he backs away from the Mebsher. It leaves, and he is stranded at Warne’s Farm, fallen through the system. Unable to understand what has happened, he walks out to the site of the attack on the Mebsher but can find no understanding.
As evening falls, he walks back to Warne’s Farm, but everything has changed. The compound and its fences has disappeared. The tower is visible, but it is sturdy and well-constructed. There are signs proclaiming this to be Tealby Moor. Everyone is in frantic action as bomber planes are readied for take-off. Tarent takes copious photographs, through his online link to his storage is inaccessible. He can go where he wants, get as close to people as he wishes, and they do not see, hear or perceive him. He has returned to 1944 but as a ghost.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light bursts directly above him. He fears he is about to fall victim to an Adjacency attack, but it seems only to e a Very Light. He follows two airmen across the field. One of them reveals it is his last day here, that he is being transferred tomorrow. The other wishes him, “Good luck, Floody.”
The airmen have mentioned that a lone Spitfire landed an hour earlier. Tarent, unable to process this strangeness, but feeling as if he is in a dream, photographs a raid on the base. Another Very light explodes above him. He seeks out a building, finding the Spitfire in a hangar. It’s female pilot is Melanie.
Both believed the other dead. They hug, astonished at their reunion. A third Very light explodes above them. Perhaps this is an Adjacency attack. They find themselves in the Lincolnshire countryside at early morning, above Warne’s Farm, with its decaying tower. Melanie was to report her for debriefing. They descend to the farm.
Having produced such a lengthy, but nowhere near comprehensive summary of the novel, how then do we interpret it? Certainly, it includes many echoes of previous works by Priest: the dystopian future following Muslim takeover harks back to Fugue for a Darkening Island: the photographer Tibor Tarent is a clear reminder of Richard Grey in The Glamour, especially in the final part, when his ghost-like presence in 1944 is identical to Grey’s performances when calling on the Glamour: Tommy Trent, though twenty years after the Victorian era, draws upon the ambience of the stage magicians in The Prestige: the wartime Tealby Moor returns to the war-time of The Separation (J. L. Sawyer lands at the field, briefly): virtually the whole of Part 7 could have been inserted into The Islanders without any sense of strain.
As I said, in some respects this is a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits tour.
But the most pertinent manner in which this reflects Priest’s lifes works is that, to the greatest extent possible, The Adjacent is spun around the central theme of Uncertainty. Every single moment of this book is a demonstration of Uncertainty.
In every Part, lines shift, lives shift. Tarent is Trent, is Torrance, is Tomacz, is Tallant, is Thom. He’s even three Tarent’s at the very least. Melanie is Krystina/Malina, is Krystenya/Mellanya. Flo is Flo twice, is Firentsa twice.
And note that Flo/Firentsa’s surnames, Mallinan/Mallin are themselves closely related to Melanie/Malina/Mellanya, further casting doubt upon whether these two roles are not the same person. The pair only meet as separate bodies only briefly, and in the strange, flexible world of the Dream Archipelago.
Identities shift, adjacencies recapitulate, characters move from world to world, sometimes overtly as in Krystina/Krystenya’s ability to fly into and out of the world of the Dream Archipelago, but most often by a simple change of adjacency. Nowhere do we know who is who, who is which. The book starts with Tibor and Melanie’s marriage torn apart by her death: it ends with a fairy-tale reuniting, but who amongst those who reads this book has any belief that the Tibor and Melanie of the book’s ending are those at its beginning?
It’s not layers of reality, as in the helter-skelter ending of A Dream of Wessex: these worlds through which we slip, almost unnoticed are, of course, Adjacent.
Do we know that our own lives are any more certain than those in this book?