Christopher Priest is an illusionist. If you have read some of his previous novels, you will know to expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet. You will know that the people you see on the page aren’t who you expect them to be or, if they are, they will be more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip.
Entering the Dream Archipelago, Priest’s heady collection of microcosms and forgotten places, was a welcome treat for a fan. And for fans, there are Easter eggs galore: take the presence of writer, Moylita Kaine, whose first manifestation in The Islanders comes as a writer of fan letters to another novelist. We read about her first efforts to become a writer, and that she has finally written a novel, called The Affirmation.
The Affirmation? I thought to myself. Priest wrote a novel called The Affirmation, of course, but I did a little digging. I recalled a short story, ‘The Negation’ (1978) which was first included in a rare collection called The Infinite Summer, and then later the Dream Archipelago book. ‘The Negation’ featured Moylita Kaine as an established novelist. In The Islanders, she crops up again several times, and also (I think) the character with whom she interacted in ‘The Negation’, a minor finale playing out decades later. These connections between books and time will please many of those who have read a lot of Priest’s output: they’re not explicit, they’re elegant inclusions, all part of Priest’s dreamscape.
But back to The Islanders.
There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least, there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.
Chaster Kammeston, a novelist who will make an appearance later in the novel, explains this in his introduction. The book is presented as non-fiction, a strange collection of tales or accounts, letters, confessions and so on, from the Islanders of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing is certain, as the reader is plunged into mock-travel guide accounts of the many (and there are indeed many) islands that make up the Archipelago. Mixing the island names and patois, the reader is given time to absorb Priest’s fragile reality.
It seems an odd way to go about presenting a novel – if indeed by now it seems a novel – when suddenly the plot appears in an unconventional, non-fiction manner. Characters are reappearing in others’ accounts. Events begin to match up, overlap, contradict each other. Subtleties become extremely important: or, if you’re a Priest fan, possible further deceptions. The reading experience is extraordinary. It’s like a magic eye puzzle: the closer you are to the text, the less you might see. You must be vaguely passive, absorbing the shapes within, to see anything of note (and even then you might be deceived), and yet remain at all times alert. Adam Roberts, in his splendid review, discusses the phrase ‘Ergodic literature’ with reference to reading the novel.
The central plot? That depends on both what you mean by ‘central’ and ‘plot’. Certainly some of the key narratives include: a murder of Commis, a professional mime artist, and those who were involved in and around the theatre at the time, their stories before and thereafter; a radical social thinker, Caurer, and her relationship with literary sensation Chaster Kammeston, his reputation and his death (note: he wrote the introduction to the novel); add to that a famous debauched painter, Dryd Bathurst, a creative tunnelling artist, those who seek to map islands with drones, those interested in the spurious trial of the man executed for supposedly murdering Commis; and keep in mind that all of these and many more micro-narratives connect or glance off each other in all sorts of subtle ways. Ultimately you begin to wonder what the plots actually are, if indeed there are any, or if it is all a vast, blissful game in a setting comprised of multiple cultures, topographies, economies and currencies.
I should also stress some of the beauty here. Priest has always written in a minimalist, deliberately mannered and very English style, which serves his fiction perfectly, because it does not get in the way of the underground complexities. Often, some of the above narratives are heartbreaking, mesmerising, or achingly tender in places. This is certainly his most refined prose.
Ultimately, it is a remarkable book that seems to be a logical continuation, even summation, of all of Priest’s themes to date. What’s more, all of this literary playfulness does not detract from the fact that it is a wonderful, entertaining novel.
It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a reading experience this much.