An American Story – Christopher Priest

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GOLLANCZ 2018

Some of my previous reviews of Christopher Priest:
https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/christopher-priest/
https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/the-lslanders-by-christopher-priest/
https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/life-on-mars/

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

20 thoughts on “An American Story – Christopher Priest

  1. ONE, TWO, THREE

    “After a short but difficult transition period, Scotland rejoined the EU as a separate nation.”

    I always love Christopher Priest books ever since I started reading them in the 1970s. And this book promises to be no exception, one with slight shuttles from the para-world I know; it stays tractable and non-attritional enough to follow and enjoy, unlike the things that shuttled more jaggedly or blatantly and attritionally in ‘Machines Like Me’ by another favourite author of mine, but one who, in ‘Machines Like Me’, deliberately rôle-played that he was a bad writer writing it, based on one possible interpretation. This Priest, meanwhile, is narrated by a freelance journalist, with connections with the people mentioned in these pages, at the turn of the last century and beyond another twenty years. I am learning a lot about him and his backstory painlessly, even pleasurably. His previous partner a woman who was obsessed with the book DRACULA and was killed by terrorists in 2001, and now he is with someone else with two children, and much more we learn. I sense this 2018 book slipped out from another para-world as I was not aware of it till very recently. And I was accidentally listening to the Best of Peter Sculthorpe when starting to read it this afternoon. Was the mysterious plane on the news something to do with jet? And I, too, am going to a hotel in Harrogate in a week’s time. Been to Whitby, Robin’s Hood Bay and Scarborough. And I arguably live in the “dullest part of Essex”, but it’s not, definitely not, Purfleet.

  2. Just before reading, this same morning, the fourth chapter of this book, I read and reviewed this E. Nesbit story I had not read before…a ‘coincidence’ of Whitby and other factors I found significant.

    FOUR

    Travel plans ruined by journeys
    After our trip to Whitby…”

    This is an incredibly compelling chapter, teeming with what I shall l call this book’s ‘Elephant in the Room’ event, as the narrator in September 2001 has a plane journey across USA, with all the fashion of mobile communications of the day applying. In conjunction with his relationship with Lil at that time, bearing in his mind her inscrutable dealings with a to-be-divorced husband. A whole panoply of real and metaphorical flights and landings that take you by the narrative scruff of the neck. And, at any one moment in time, “….there were now so many civil aircraft that the industry could only operate successfully as long as most of them were in the air.”

  3. FIVE, SIX

    “— his capacity for abstract thought and his ability to connect unrelated concepts into a coherent argument were a total mystery to me.”

    For ‘coherent argument’, please read ‘real-time gestalt.’ It is a mystery to me, too, even though I do it. The best adjective for it, I feel, is ‘preternatural’. Hawling, träumtrawling, dreamcatching, all related. FIVE leaps forward to 2008-09 where the narrator is offered a film treatment job connected with an interview he did with a Russian mathematician, connected somehow with what I call this book’s elephant in the room central incident (an elephant to be referred to by this review in future as EVENT). The film is to be a “mathematical romance” (cf my earlier reference to ‘Machines Like Me’ that I finished reviewing a couple of days ago.) SIX returns to 2002 where the narrator – in a brilliantly described interview in a posh restaurant that sells year-old sirloin as a delicacy – meets Lil’s ex and tries to transcend the fake news and conspiracy theories surrounding her death such as EVENT and her relationship to that ex. Everything is “incidental to something larger”, I guess. The ‘long orange towel’ and its scent at the end of SIX reminds me that there is another elephant in the room (a singular man not an event) concerning this patriotic AMERICAN STORY! You know, I am wholly captivated by this book. Fiction, as a relevant device in scrying truths and real events, is explicitly touched upon here.

  4. SEVEN

    I keep my powder dry. The narrator is now NOW, in the year 2021, I guess, on the Scottish island we heard of before in connection with his interview job, “an infinitude of unseen islands” beyond… this island being where he set up home with his new partner Jeanne and their children, and Jeanne’s mother who is in ill health, now suffering from a stroke and a maze of true and false memories that are almost tidal with her remissions. There is so much here, including that mysterious news-hounded plane in the sea being a military jet (cf earlier jet trinkets), the plane everyone thought was a passenger airliner or, now, the fake news of it being a sunken ship, or one of the planes from 2001, the one with Lil aboard? Perhaps all my memories are false, memories of promises I once gave to those reading this review, even memories of those who I think are real people moving about, in and out of existence? Books do this, too. My memories of what happens in this book perhaps are changing. The book’s own memories of itself as a book are changing? I have often thought that books sometimes change between readings. What one hasn’t yet read now altering before one gets to it. Even what one has already read shifting its text in the night. Like those mobile texts once received on a plane. As I say, I keep my powder dry. There is so much here.

    • Having slept on it, perhaps the book itself has had a stroke, with Priest’s own EVENT being its “infinitude of unseen islands”. Cf the Falklands Islands syndrome of Machines Like Me and that book’s own self-harm of deliberate ‘bad’ writing as another stroke EVENT of an author; Brexit as EVENT in Coe’s Middle England (also recently real-time reviewed by me); the flesh phobia/eroticism nexus EVENT in A Blast of Hunters… (The Omensetter’s Luck of Trump in 2016; yesterday’s ‘blistering’ 30 days war announced between Angela and Boris; the first issue of Nemonymous published in November 2001; and thinking aloud about further orange EVENT horizons.)

  5. EIGHT

    “Once you pass about forty it’s useless expecting to have original ideas any more. Those come from young minds only.”

    But what about the patterns of ideas? Older people are better at the patterns of ideas, if not the ideas themselves. And now it is about time I named the narrator as Ben Matson. His are the ideas, and the over-arching, steel-embedded, older author is patterning them into a novel, by shaping the chapter headings and time-lines. The gathering of fictions as a weapon of meaning or an aesthetic gestalt. And EIGHT’s two interviews then in 1996 and 2005 respectively feature talk about such patterns — in the mouth of the mathematician Tatarov, and then, about the conjectures, theorems and conspiracy theories of EVENT, in the info-dump mouth of an interviewee who Ben needs to keep anonymous (except, ironically, this interviewee or interlocutor is named in this novel): and Ben’s interest in EVENT’s events stem from his loss of Lil in it. Some of which begs the question: how did Grenfell Tower not collapse after its fire?

  6. NINE, TEN

    “Were another 130,000 people in on the [EVENT] conspiracy? Was every single one of them still content to maintain the fiction of their story?”
    [It is my replacement-by-interpolation with the squared brackets and their content.]

    And as I reach Nine, Ten in this book, I wonder how many readers popular mainstream novels like this one might reach. I think 130,000 might be a good estimate, but I really have no idea. Some attritional details here of the various so-called known facts and theories behind EVENT. I get the impression, along with Jeanne, that Ben is obsessed with EVENT as a result of Lil’s death in 2001 and now more and more with EVENT itself. Also I note the coincidence of what Jeanne says about her late father D. L. Glenister and his connection with EVENT, and the book that he wrote about it, now missing. This EVENT NOVEL makes me believe in that otherwise far-fetched connection by dint of it being here fictionally verifiable. [I have just glimpsed ahead to ELEVEN and see that it starts with a section headed ‘Orange and blue’ and I can’t wait to read it.]

  7. ELEVEN

    “, they were in effect hiding the events in plain sight.”

    This book is becoming more and more germane to this fictionally verifiable NOVEL’s EVENT in ELEVEN, assuming you accept it in its own terms, and opening yourself up to it without prejudgment. Placing yourself as your own gestalt real-time reviewer. The characters seem connected in one way or another, direct or indirect, to EVENT. And I remember characters and lower-case events as they return to my mind, having forgotten them in my ageing mind. The woman with orange hair, for example, whom Ben meets in ELEVEN, I can now recall from two previous scenes, a business meeting and a blurred flirtation of strangers in business-sponsored digs, my recalling these scenes despite being one of those people in their just-managing early seventies, such people explicitly mentioned in this chapter ELEVEN. Presumably, awaiting my first stroke. Also the concept of those live broadcasts of EVENT back in 2001 that we all watched arguably being items of performance screen art, with rogue cuts, intercuts, changing commentaries, &c. And Tatarov and the Poliakoff-like hydro hotel on Ben’s Scottish Island… And Lucinda, Jeanne’s seemingly recovering mother, one of those early seventies seers, too… Early seventies, as her age, not as the seventies of a past decade.

    “…I hadn’t realized just how many ordinary people had been affected.”

  8. TWELVE

    “Based purely on hindsight — this loosely described event, unsupported by any evidence —“

    Ben’s EVENT TWELVE aftermath thoughts 2001-2006, the uncertainty of information as to Lil’s death, the different official stories and veritable “vernacular history” about the then older facility to explain the mobile or airfone calls from airborne and other victims during EVENT, the barriers and inconsistencies about other official information about EVENT and what the government did afterwards in revenge, Ben’s subsequently meeting Jeanne, finally telling her about Lil, and the jet lignite bearing a ruined abbey (Whitby?) still on his key ring… You cannot open anything with a ring — something unaccountably going through my mind, if not the book’s.

    “Nothing was consistent with anything else.”

  9. THIRTEEN, FOURTEEN

    “His discourse meandered through ten or twelve subjects, all seeming adjacent, one leading to the next, none of the connections obvious to me until I heard him make them.”

    The meat of this book, of my reviewing heretofore, how intellect interacts with flesh, and how and why I do what I do, think what I think. After having one reality of visiting the Scottish Island with Jeanne’s mother Lucinda in 2006, with its emotional or even sexual undercurrents, Ben meets Tatarov for this book’s now famous interview, if only famous WITHIN this book, in the Hydro hotel (where Lil once planned a vampire convention), parts of this hotel not just symbolically a diplomatic version of USA, but the USA tantamount to itself, and we have factored into us how truth, reality and their perceived opposites have developed or will develop after 2006 on the Internet and consequently in fiction itself as a compass, water versus water. This is seminal stuff for me, and I hope I will be forgiven several quotes in the ‘mute room’ of this review, any yellow hard hat needed notwithstanding … “A mathematical theorem is therefore one which connects significant ideas, and has a reference of some kind to the real world of physical existence. “ – “We do not look for results in a poem, but poetry means nothing unless it correlates to recognizable reality.” – “, the Thomas Theorem is like concrete poetry. It has a use, a tangible form.” – “…Socrates feared universal literacy would promote the appearance of wisdom among people who were not wise, but who merely had information.” – “Eventually, I assume, most of the people in the world will be communicating with each other.” – “, a fundamental shift in the nature and use of facts, and the weight we should give to an alleged fact.” – “Facts have been replaced with opinions.” – “, to discard facts, to question and therefore change memories.” – “But as you watched did you accept what you were seeing was verifiably true? […] about the facts of the EVENT.” (My capitals.) Then to the canteen and a comfort break. And then the ‘three objects’, A, B & C, a section that is essential reading for all.

    “I tried to stay tuned, to let his notions slide past me and make a general impression, get an understanding of sorts and what was behind it all. At last it began to cohere.”

  10. FIFTEEN, SIXTEEN, SEVENTEEN, EIGHTEEN
    For me, a portmanteau coda.

    “’But I live in the EU.’”

    Ben in the NOW of c2021, at first, places within different places again, too, London envisioned, a new mission for Ben to USA, Philadelphia, and I am sure any POTUS associated with the colour orange is still factored OUT … if not pervasive elsewhere? The USA is seen here, you see, as an easy-going place within the now extended EVENT of this book, not a novel so much as a roman-a-clef, uniquely didactic without disproveable fiction or fixture or a future beyond itself. Not a novel, yet somehow still a great novel! Meanwhile, SIXTEEN is a brief intermission of THEN 2006-2001 (“When the motive is malign, facts and known EVENTS [my capitals] are no longer empirical. They can be downgraded into theories, suspicions, lies, alleged conspiracies They can be redacted. History itself falls into doubt.”) The head of Channel 4 News only this week in my own real-time NOW, said we should call politicians liars, when they are liars, as they always seem to me to be. But did she say that last bit? Some fascinating scenes later in this multi-coda, of what had been hawled from the sea – that ship or plane, or a hybrid of both? The alloys et al. “What sort of coincidence was that?” Only just this week in my own real-time of NOW: warnings on the news of The Titanic becoming just a pile of seabed-embedded rust. (Just one gripe: was there no CCTV camera on Ben at the end when he filched from the fished up?) Finally: AHEAD: 2024…

    “The next morning I was awake early with the effects of jetlag.”

    end

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