Category Archives: today, i have mostly been reading………..

Christopher Priest – The Adjacent

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed from time to time my laments that the speculative and experimental writer Christopher Priest is not a household name with books on every coffee table in the land.
Depressingly, my local library refused to order it in, on the basis there would be no demand, sadly one person does not create even a teeny demand.
BUT and BUT……
He is a writer using all sorts of experimental tricks to blind and fog the reader, all delivered in extremely straightforward prose, he doesn’t want to mess with your head with language…..its the contenst, the mobius strip of possible narrative realities that will get inside you and f**** with you.
The Adjacent is not a good introduction to the work of Priest, it is dense, complex, continually questions the reality of the text itself and the inner reality and truth of the characters own lives and if that makes it sound hard to read, it isnt, but as with many of his works, it only gives up true understanding on a second and third read.

The Adjacent is his 10th novel and it’s an assured piece, using fractured narratives, a visit to the Dream Archipeligo and conventions of slip stream writing to explore the idea of weapons of mass distruction, global catastrophe and alternative histories.

I found this review which raises , far beter than I could, the joys and fustrations of Priest as a writer, so shamelessly stolen….


The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Reviewed by Niall Alexander

12 August 2013

Seamless storytelling can sometimes seem like magic, but in The Adjacent, Christopher Priest goes to great lengths to stress the applied aspects of both practices:

What I do . . . is contrived to look like a series of miracles, but in reality the preparation of a magical illusion is a prosaic matter. Few people realise the amount of rehearsal conjurors have to put in, nor what goes on in the background. A trick often requires technical assistants, who will help design and build the apparatus. The movements a magician makes on stage are the result of long and patient rehearsal, while still having to look natural and spontaneous to the audience. It is an acquired practical skill, in other words. Only while in performance, in the glare of the limelight, can magic look like inspiration. Even at best it is never more than an illusion. Things are never what they seem. (p. 86)

This is true of almost every facet of The Adjacent. Its narrative feels fairly straightforward at first, but the farther into the fold we go, the less linear and logical it looks. One tale turns into two, two into ten . . . ten threads or thereabouts, then, which contradict as often as complement one another, seeming to stand alone from the whole at the same time as suggesting some imperative collective resonance. Meanwhile, whatever motivations or expectations Priest’s cast of characters either have or lack at the outset are quickly obliterated; annihilated on even the theoretical level by something uncomfortably akin to the Perturbative Adjacent Field proposed by Professor Thijs Rietvel.

A revolutionary reactant which allows for physical matter to be diverted to another realm—so that a missile, for instance, fired at a target protected by this technology seemingly ceases to exist—the PAF becomes known as “The Weapon That Will End War” (p. 162). Instead, tellingly, it facilitates a scenario on the opposite end of the spectrum: a “war that will end everything” (p. 255), fought with adjacency-based weapons no one can defend against.

In the interim, the climate has practically collapsed, rendering large parts of the planet uninhabitable and dramatically altering the weather everywhere else. Devastating tropical storms are now par for the course in middle England, and that country, where the bulk of Priest’s tenth novel takes place, has seen some still more sweeping changes. It’s now a part of the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, or the IRGB: a setting simply presented, with next to no context or explanation. All we can do is accept it whole-cloth, in concord with the pedestrian ways it’s changed the day-to-day:

As the Mebsher moved slowly out of the town centre one of the crewmen came on the intercom. It was a formula greeting: peace be upon you, Allah is almighty, welcome back aboard, keep your seat-belts fastened, food is available in the galley but remember that no alcohol is allowed aboard, please follow all instructions from the crew in the event of emergencies. Inshallah. (p. 26)

The IRGB can be read as a controlled response to the rise in recent years of Islamophobic narratives—of what we could call apocalypse Allah as it’s played out in speculative fiction specifically. Rather than roundly rebutting this quasi-racist rubbish, Priest presents a balanced Britain-under-Islam that is in every manner matter of fact. The slight changes effected by the government’s revised religious outlook are skin-deep indeed: that Allah is publicly praised in the IRGB rather than the holy Christian trinity is nearly meaningless; jarring, perhaps, but only momentarily.

In terms of narrative, character, and setting, then, The Adjacent plays with our expectations at every stage. Indeed, preconceptions are a crucial piece of the prose puzzle that Priest’s new novel masquerades as: on the one hand there’s what we believe we’ve seen, and on the other, what has actually happened. Our understanding of certain events is frequently revealed to be incomplete, our subsequent assumptions incorrect, giving rise to the sense of uncertainty that has come to be characteristic of this illusionist-cum-author’s oeuvre.

Our purported protagonist, Tibor Tarent, is a freelance photographer whose aid worker wife is arbitrarily atomized at the outset of the text by a bastardization of the aforementioned PAF. Unbeknownst to Tarent, a similar attack has annulled a substantial chunk of London; thus the government of the IRGB recall him from war-torn Anatolia to be debriefed. Still “in a state of torpid confusion” (p. 131), he is a character utterly without agency for perhaps the first half of his four-part narrative. To be sure, he’s aware that “other people [are] taking over his life, determining his actions” (p. 35), but unquestioning compliance excuses him from dwelling on the part he’s afraid he played in his partner’s passing, so for a time, Tarent simply submits to the system. Eventually, however, his photographer’s curiosity—his innate need to reframe reality—wins out once it becomes inescapably apparent that his home country is not what it was, if, that is, the IRGB even is his home country.

The key to unlocking it all, or as much of it as Priest is prepared to give away, is found in The Adjacent’s second section. La rue des bêtes—literally the street of beasts—introduces readers to Tommy Trent, aka London’s Lord of Mystery. The celebrated British prestidigitator is being shipped out to the French front of the First World War to offer his professional perspective on the camouflaging of reconnaissance craft, but immediately after he arrives, the only soldier with any interest in his ideas dies while test-flying one of the airplanes Trent had been asked to assist with. Thus rebuffed, he takes the next train home, and as abruptly as it began, La rue des bêtes ends.

In practice, that’s the first and last we hear of the Lord of Mystery, yet his stymied stratagems reverberate through the rest of text. Chiefly, he advances another interpretation of adjacency, as it applies to live magic rather than science:

The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates. (pp. 103-4)

To wit, a prodigious portion of Priest’s narrative is an elaborate distraction. But which bit? And what has it been designed to distract us, the audience, from?

The Adjacent is an enormously recursive piece of work, rife with doubles, dissonance, and a laundry list of other uncanny occurrences. Priest has written novels of this sort before, of course—enigmas wrapped in riddles—many of which The Adjacent pointedly, and at points poignantly, recalls. In concept, The Adjacent’s broken Britain recalls that of his recently revised dystopian debut, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972). It also has multiple magicians in common with the pair from The Prestige (1995); an interest in synchronicity not dissimilar to the one Priest explored in The Extremes (1998); and the author’s fascination with wartime aircraft—see The Separation (2002), especially—dominates the central section, wherein a so-called “instrument basher” (p. 177) falls for a dashing Polish pilot. Later on, a large fragment of narrative—in itself the longest and most engrossing of The Adjacent’s eight—returns (and returns (and returns)) to the Dream Archipelago Priest has often explored before; in the 1999 short story arrangement of the same name in addition to The Affirmation (1981) and The Islanders (2011). But for all that it has a lot in common, conceptually, with Priest’s past narratives, one rarely feels that he’s repeating himself. Yet this may be the adjacency effect at work as well:

All stage magic evolves gradually, tricks adapting as society changes or as new technology becomes available, but every illusion is based on a handful of principles that have not changed in centuries. What appear to be fresh concepts or innovations are in fact the result of showmanship or novel ways of presenting old ideas. (p. 314)

Though he has been taken to task for plodding prose, these continuing criticisms have always seemed measly to me. Priest’s sentences are certainly unsentimental—that they are not as pretty as those from the pens of our principal wordsmiths is plain—but what they lack in glamor they more than make up for in purposefulness. The power bolstering Priest’s prose lies in its incremental accretion of meaning, particularly so when the significance of this implication and that insinuation is not known. Stripped of the superficial, the elements of the entire illusion are laid bare, and such artifice is much more attractive when we’re invited to work out what the method behind what we see could conceivably be.

Reading The Adjacent is like taking a grand tour of the larger canon Christopher Priest has established over the course of his forty-year career, so no, newcomers need not apply, but old hands are apt to find it massively satisfying: an exceptional effort which seems to complete, if not necessarily conclude, many of the themes and ideas the author has been dickering with, ever so cleverly, for decades.

One can only hope this literary magician has many more tricks in his repertoire.


Seamus Heaney reading his ( probably) best known poem

RIP Seamus Heaney, heavy weight of the Irish literary scene, translator of Nordic Sagas, writer of both personal and global poetry.
I love this poem, it has the immediacy of conversation, the casualness of someone simply reliving a memory, until,that is, you start to analayse the words and structures and begin the understand the care and attention to detail that has informed every word chosen, every sentence structure, but it’s done with such a surety of touch, that the skill doesn’t overshadow the poems’ emotional heart.

RIP Iain Banks

This is taken from the Guardian Obituary.
If you haven’t read his work, I can strongly recommend it, challenging with strong narratives, plot twists and memorable characters.

The writer Iain Banks, who has died aged 59, had already prepared his many admirers for his death. On 3 April he announced on his website that he had inoperable gall bladder cancer, giving him, at most, a year to live. The announcement was typically candid and rueful. It was also characteristic in another way: Banks had a large web-attentive readership who liked to follow his latest reflections as well as his writings. Particularly in his later years, he frequently projected his thoughts via the internet. There can have been few novelists of recent years who were more aware of what their readers thought of their books; there is a frequent sense in his novels of an author teasing, testing and replying to a readership with which he was pretty familiar.

His first published novel, The Wasp Factory, appeared in 1984, when he was 30 years old, though it had been rejected by six publishers before being accepted by Macmillan. It was an immediate succès de scandale. The narrator is the 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, who lives with his taciturn father in an isolated house on the north-east coast of Scotland. Frank lives in a world of private rituals, some of which involve torturing animals, and has committed several murders. The explanation of his isolation and his obsessiveness is shockingly revealed in one of the culminating plot twists for which Banks was to become renowned.

It was followed by Walking on Glass (1985), composed of three separate narratives whose connections are deliberately made obscure until near the end of the novel. One of these seems to be a science fiction narrative and points the way to Banks’s strong interest in this genre. Equally, multiple narration would continue to feature in his work.

The next year’s novel, The Bridge, featured three separate stories told in different styles: one a realist narrative about Alex, a manager in an engineering company, who crashes his car on the Forth road bridge; another the story of John Orr, an amnesiac living on a city-sized version of the bridge; and a third, the first-person narrative of the Barbarian, retelling myths and legends in colloquial Scots. In combining fantasy and allegory with minutely located naturalistic narrative, it was clearly influenced by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981). It remained the author’s own avowed favourite.

His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987, though he had drafted it soon after completing The Wasp Factory. In it he created The Culture, a galaxy-hopping society run by powerful but benevolent machines and possessed of what its inventor called “well-armed liberal niceness”. It would feature in most of his subsequent sci-fi novels. Its enemies are the Idirans, a religious, humanoid race who resent the benign powers of the Culture. In this conflict, good and ill are not simply apportioned. Banks provided a heady mix of, on the one hand, action and intrigue on a cosmic scale (his books were often called “space operas”), and, on the other, ruminations on the clash of ideas and ideologies.

For the rest of his career literary novels would alternate with works of science fiction, the latter appearing under the name “Iain M Banks” (the “M” standing for Menzies). Banks sometimes spoke of his science fiction books as a writerly vacation from the demands of literary fiction, where he could “pull out the stops”, as he himself put it. Player of Games (1988) was followed by Use of Weapons (1990). The science fiction employed some of the narrative trickery that characterised his literary fiction: Use of Weapons, for instance, featured two interleaved narratives, one of which moved forward in time and the other backwards. Their connectedness only became clear with a final, somewhat outrageous, twist of the narrative. His many fans came to relish these tricks.



House of leaves

Buying a book because it is big, has weird looking pages and the slightly bored Saturday assistant in the 2nd hand bookshop is easily persuaded to sell it to me for very little money, is perhaps not the most effective way of selectng books, but sometimes it just pays off.

Which is how I came upon House of Leaves and then found out, of course, that in annals of contemporary experimental writing, it’s up there and I should know about it, but I didn’t.

House of Leaves might be a ghost/horror story, a love story, a critique of writing analysis or even a exercise in typography…’s big, it’s complicated and oddly enthraling.

Wikipedia says……

House of Leaves is the debut novel by the American author Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books. The novel quickly became a bestseller following its release on March 7, 2000. It was followed by a companion piece, The Whalestoe Letters. The novel has since been translated into a number of languages.
The format and structure of the novel is unconventional, with unusual page layout and style, making it ergodic literature. It contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, and some of which reference books that do not exist.[1] Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in disorienting and elaborate ways.
While some have attempted to describe the book as a horror story, many readers as well as the author would define the book as a love story. Danielewski expands on this point in an interview: “I had one woman come up to me in a bookstore and say, ‘You know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized that it was a love story.’ And she’s absolutely right. In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.”[2]
House of Leaves has been described as a “satire of academic criticism.”[3]

You might have to pay more for your copy than I did, but you may consider it money well spent.



The quiet pleasure of Agatha Christie on an almost winter night.

There is something immensely pleasurable about winter evenings and comfort reading. I should be working through the pile of “hard” books that tether untidly next to my bed, but instead, I find myself reading for perhaps the 5th or 6th time one of the many Agatha Christie paperbacks that have their own shelf ( the rather nice 60s Fontana editions, with the good illustrations, if anyone is interested) in my sitting room.

Agatha Christie was my first foray into “proper” books, books that were read by adults and kept in the main library, not the children’s room.

In an era when teen fiction simply didn’t exist, Agatha Christie or more accurately the borrowing of them from my local library, was a rite of passage.
At 12 or 13, the librarian, and this was long before the days of Interactive learning zones, multi media or libraries in shopping centres, would decide that you were old enough, sensible enough to be unleashed into the adult section and Agatha Christies were the books we were gently but firmly pointed towards.

I knew of course that there were other adult books, books i had heard of, wanted desperately to read, but I knew better than to even consider trying to borrow them from my local red brick Carnegie library.

Although I can remember the dizzy joy of discovering copies of The Joy of Sex, The Diceman and Memoirs of a Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan under my mothers’ bed, my weekly library loaning, in that Saturday gap between confession and helping my mother with the big weekly shop, mostly consisted of Agatha Christie and Norah Lofts (just for the racey bits)

I read them all, was bored by the ones that included any archeology, puzzled by the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford series, enjoyed the Hercule Poirots and was actually scared in at least Miss Marple novel.

Agatha Christe novels had everything I needed at age 12 or 13. They could be read in one evening and in the days when families had one television and the television had 3 channels and bedrooms where places we went to sleep, not to live parallel teenage lives, a book that could occupy a whole evening was a treasure.

Agatha Christie’s characters lived in a world I knew nothing about, but recognised even as a suburban teenager that they belonged to quite another time, but was happy to drift along in her world while in the real world, I was drifting too.

Her books were safe, yes, there was some mention of romance,but fat, awkward and convent schooled, there was nothing to make me feel anxious, uncomfortable.
For the nights when I wanted to push myself, pretend a level of sophistication,there was always the books underneath my mothers’ bed.

I have of course read and re-read these books over the years, most often in rented holiday cottages, piled up amidst the Jackie Collins, the Andy Mcnabs and the current must read amongst the sort of people who rent cottages in Norfolk or remote parts of Wales, one year we found 6 copies of Captain Corellis mandolin in 2 different locations.

Secretly, I always hoped for at least one truly wet day, a day when even the most optomistic could not look out of the window and suggest it might clear up later.
Then, with a clear conscience, I could take myself to a sofa and bury myself in small village crime.

So, last night I re-read Agatha Christie, chewed chocolate covered toffees and remembered my 13 year old self.


My daughter is reading “catcher in the rye” and cannot be disturbed.

My daughter is reading catcher in the rye and cannot be disturbed and I am jealous because she is reading it for the first time and I can never experience that moment of recognition ever again.
This week she has discovered Sylvia Plath for the first time and again I know that I can never have the shock, the visceral recognition In finding an author who articulates all the pain of young womanhood again.
My daughter is exploring the beat writers and I wonder if she too dreams of road trips and bad trips and an all American soundtrack.
My daughter has taken herself to her bedroom, to read of pain, of un-belonging, to befriend all the lost boys and faltering girls.
My daughter is under her duvet, believing that she is the only person who understands these writers and knows that these writers articulate all that she feels and knows and that this has never happened to anyone in the whole history of time.
My daughter is reading catcher in the rye and cannot be disturbed.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Jay Rubin (Translator)

“But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning”

It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

Its mysterious, haunting, full of stories that seem to go no-where but that hang in your mind. I cannot recommend it highly enough.