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The Adjacent Review: Reading Between the Lines
A picture is worth a thousand words as the saying goes, and what prose The Adjacent contains reveals a stranger picture still. Meticulous and uncompromising, author Christopher Priest (The Prestige, The Islanders) weaves a continually intriguing web of mystery as puzzling as it is daunting. A confounding collection of intricately laid characters and plotlines across endless threads, Priest paints on a canvas sprawling with color and finesse. Sometimes overwhelming, but rarely disengaging, The Adjacent spans dimensions of infinite complexity that is all but apparent in the most creative of ways.
The book primarily establishes itself amidst three distinct backdrops: one in a cataclysmic near-future, another in World War I, and yet another in World War II. In the 2020s, widower and freelance photojournalist Tibor Tarent is recalled from Turkey where his wife was inexplicably killed to the Islamic Republic Great Britain (IRGB) following the aftermath of a bizarre and terrifying terrorist attack. A century earlier in the Great War, stage magician Tommy Trent is ordered to the Western Front on a secret mission to render British reconnaissance planes invisible to the enemy, while meeting a man believing he can create a means to end to all wars. In 1943, a Polish aviatrix, Krystyna, comes to meet young RAF technician Mike Torrance, telling him of her escape from the Nazis, her lost love, and her desperate need to return home. In the present day, reporter Jane Flockart and a young Tibor interview a theoretical physicist as he stands in his English garden, setting in motion events that cannot be soon undone. All these stories then confusingly take us to the islands of the Dream Archipelago, circling one way or another around the all encompassing idea of “adjacency.”
Individually, these story arcs are unevenly engrossing, though Priest’s descriptive prowess is impeccable. The book proceeds at a rather complacent pace at its start, with a tendency to overindulge itself in a slow drumbeat of bland scenery and military rigmarole. Nevertheless, his flat, clinical prose envisions the inner workings of a Lancaster bomber to great effect, as does his sobering portrayal of RAF squadron’s youthful, doomed pilots. The transitions between periods get increasingly better before too long, and their intertwining more distinct, though often at the cost of their sterile characterization.
Emotionally removed from one another–and perhaps from themselves–Priest’s characters are more devices than people. That’s understandable given the actual distance between them, whether by continents or centuries, but it also undermines the powerful love story at the heart of the book. It’s only ironic that The Adjacent’s most compelling character be its very real figure of H.G. Wells, whose walk-in appearance so calls to mind calls to mind Nikola Tesla’s own spotlight in The Prestige. What political commentary he brings adds an appreciated wit, yet his time is short, and it feels disappointing not to say the same of his more starring counterparts.
What links them all is the principle of adjacency itself, and it’s this interconnectedness that’s The Adjacent’s strength. Buildings, people, they’re both prone to exist in something beyond natural bounds from one chapter to the next: now you see them, now you don’t. Avatars of characters appear in different timelines with slightly different names, performing versions of the same action each within a different subtext, one of them apparently being the convenience of attractive women seemingly sleeping with any male protagonist they happen to cross. That said, transition between periods isn’t obtrusive; it’s structured in such a way that rewards dedication, even if not always with a logical pattern.
The similarity of its three protagonists names–Tarent, Trent, and Torrance–is at first maddeningly unapparent, and more maddening still until the final clues begin to sink in. Priest makes sense of it all while cleverly keeping something at bay to hunger readers. A single motif, the triangle, not only casts meaning on the book’s title, it holds together a volatile structure that threatens to splinter at every turn, and Priest controls it all with the meaningful hand of a miner setting a charge. When The Adjacent finally explodes with a dizzying blast of reality, Priest contains the fallout, if not imperfectly in the book’s climactic dimensional crossover. What results isn’t terribly fulfilling, yet one that readers experienced with his unforeseen-yet-inevitable twists may be taken aback by nonetheless.
All the while, its notion of multiverses is exciting if not perplexingly ambiguous. Priest’s multiverses aren’t original so much as they are uniquely grounded, infused with a subtler, quieter, more sinister sci-fi technology. For the magician, adjacency is a misdirection of the eye, placing one object next to another. For the scientist, it’s the power of alternative dimensions in which matter from this dimension can be shifted. You can face, as Tarent seems to, both a living and dead version of yourself. Ultimately, both lie beyond anything absolute and, by extension, rules. As we’re dubiously told, adjacency began as a defensive weapon, one that might very well obliterate what hypothesis readers attempt at making. It shouldn’t make sense, nor can it, yet like photography, it simply is, and it develops as if in a dark room from page to page.
Amid Priest’s thoughtful mediations on war, hope, love, and loss, he draws together a wealth of predictive concepts that makes for some splendid speculative fantasy. The near-future world through which he travels, generally in a giant armored personnel carrier called a Mebsher, is not as we recognize it. Climate change has rendered vast areas of the world uninhabitable and once merry old England is battered by tropical hurricanes and under attack by unseen terrorists in possession of a doomsday weapon. Priest’s story contains thoughtful predictions if not disappointingly few, and present a wealth of ideas here worthy of more attention than they receive. Climate change is carefully depicted in near-future Britain and the devastating attack on a new Islamic London makes for some interesting perspective.
There’s no question that each page takes with it an absorption and enjoyment. There’s magic to be had in Priest’s artful misdirection, much in the manner of his death-defying work with The Prestige. It becomes clear, or somewhat, that even within what appears to be the same continuity there are questions and contradictions. Those bodies being carried into the tower after the attack, are they survivors, or are they, as we’re later told, dead? Have we seen one scene, or two? Tarent (or who we assume him to be) says he has no memory of ever having met Rietveld, the inventor of adjacency; later, he recalls the meeting in detail. In another continuity, two slightly divergent versions of the same set-piece are retailed.
“Sometimes the most impressive illusions are based on tricks or procedures that are so elementary that the audience would not believe what had in reality taken place,” reflects its magician. In much the same way, Priest guards his secrets close to his chest, waiting for the most opportune time to spring them. The Adjacent’s own talents work against it at times: you’ll resent leaving one situation and character to introduce the next, especially as several of them have the potential to be so much more. Yet it’s their following acts that ultimately make it more meaningful and like the book’s reiterated stage adages, it’s readers overly fixated on finding deciphering its tricks who will be fooled the most. Drink in their clues passively yet mindfully and you may just see the wires. The big reveal is that there isn’t a big reveal: symmetries are skewed, yet their synchronicity is eventually rewarding if not painfully so.
Pleasing to some fans may be the amusing anecdotes of Priest’s former body of work. In particular, his 2011 novel The Islanders, and to a lesser extent The Prestige, are either mirrored or referenced outright. While The Adjacent is in no way a sequel, nor is it needlessly nostalgic, fans may recall something of the sort in one of the book’s archipelago islands in which “experimental [art] is not encouraged.” It’s not necessary to have read either to fully appreciate his work here, but it certainly adds to the fun.
A puzzling and frustrating read, The Adjacent undoubtedly leaves much to interpretation as a work and spiritual allegory alike. For readers of The Prestige or fans of its adaptation by Christopher Nolan, it’s all for the love of the chase and placing each piece of the puzzle a victory even without knowledge of what its picture tells. Though some are stale and others more time-killing expository, what vital ones it possesses are as captivating as they are eventually rewarding. The Adjacent is certainly not light reading, and each page deserves a second reading. Like the best coin tricks, you can‘t help but feel cheated or fooled, but that would be ignoring the fun of such dedication to the art. If you can summon the courage make sense of it all, you’ll be in for a deserved treat.