Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Islanders

In many ways, the reissue of The Dream Archipelago was the perfect preface for the appearance, two years later, of Priest’s first novel in almost a decade, The Islanders. This latter, the most unusual ‘novel’ of Priest’s career, was set wholly in and about the Dream Archipelago, making it the author’s longest and most comprehensive excursion into this most attractive of psychological landscapes.
The Islanders takes on an unorthodox form, in that it purports to be a Gazetteer of the Archipelago, or at least of some substantial part of it. It is a collection of entries purporting to describe certain islands, listed in alphabetical order by their official name: their geographies, their position in the Archipelago, their societies, their characters, their economies.
But, as Priest warns ion an introduction ‘written’ by one of the Archipelago’s greatest ever novelists, himself a recurring character in the book, this is not a work of dry information. What represents certain albums is not plain fact, but myth, and story. ‘The Trace’, which appeared in The Dream Archipelago, is reprinted here, the mysterious context that the short story deliberately excludes now fleshed out.
Two other short stories form part of this work, whilst another account alludes to ‘The Negation’ in the collection, providing an unwilling closure to that story.
What Priest is building here is a mosaic. There is no one, spinal story, rather a series of characters, or prominent people, whose fame or notoriety crosses between islands and stories, pursuing their artistic compulsions. These include people such as the tunneller, Yo, or the artist and compulsive seducer Dryd Bathurst, continually departing overnight from islands where he has presumably had some woman – or women – that it was not wise to have had, leaving behind paintings of epic proportions and themes that seem to wind up unavailable to the general public.
The closest we come to such a story is that of the apparent murder of the mime artist Commis, on a distant island that has the feel of a Scandinavian fjord to it. Commis dies on stage,and a suggestible young man is executed after confessing to his murder. His case becomes a cause celebre pursued by the noted social reformer Caurer, whilst we see ripples from the case spreading outwards are are even given to believe that we have identified the real culprit from among our interchanging cast.
But I wouldn’t go getting too smug about that, if I were you. Priest doesn’t operate on such mundane levels, as we have seen over and over again in his books. Indeed, though this is nominally a Gazetteer, from the outset its compilers admit that it is impossible to produce an authoritative factual account, just as much so as it is impossible to produce a remotely reliable map of the Archipelago, or of any part of it.
Then there is the issue of time. The Archipelago occupies the Midway Sea, circling the globe between northern and southern continental land masses. There are two time vortexes which continually move along the equator, ensuring that everything remains unstable, and unknowable, whilst also proving to be marvellous shortcuts around the world.
And it’s not just the time vortexes in which time is unreliable. There is no clear, settled, timeline in the Archipelago. At one moment, people, and events, have happened a hundred years ago, prominent figures have died, and yet at the same time these things are happening now, and everyone is a contemporary of each other.
In geography and history, the Dream Archipelago, no matter how concrete The Islanders purports it to be, is still a psychological landscape, a Dreamscape in which states of mind are rendered into islands, each clearly visible and attainable from the others, and yet isolated from them and made no more concrete by any form of knowledge of them that we acquire.
You may be tempted to cry cheat on this book, though I wouldn’t agree with you in the slightest. It’s a puzzle that awaits resolution. This is only my third reading of it, and I am still drawing new things from it, and will no doubt continue to do so for readings to come.
I will point out that, whilst The Dream Archipelago, and the long ago The Affirmation, were set in the islands, they were stories about people who came to them from outside, about people from the north continent. The Islanders contrasts that deeply: for the first time, we are concerned exclusively with those who come from, who live in, who are born of the Archipelago: they are an entirely different breed.

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