“Argument Against Usefulness”: Christopher Priest’s “The Islanders”

Like so many others, when reading a novel I hold the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I underline and scribble, and, modest though my marginalia may be, the act of scrawling helps me wend a way through the prose. There are, however, times when a book is so involving, confounding or both that the pencil is cast aside for a second read: no amount of exclamation marks beside the text will help when a text reads at first so elusively.

Christopher Priest’s The Islanders is one such novel. My last book of 2011, it was also one of the strangest. Indeed, it has troubled reviewers, leaving Le Guin frustrated, Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone with self-contradictory fragments, and even the inestimable Adam Roberts mostly searching for comparators. On one level, this is simply a function of Priest’s formal invention: not a narrative, and not a collection of short stories, The Islanders is a kind of travelogue – it features alphabetical entries guiding the readers around the various outcrops of the Dream Archipelago, a location of dubious reality which has cropped up before in Priest’s work. At the same time, however, it features several longer entries which do not pretend to guide or inform, but read more like traditional vignettes told from and by a range of views and voices: characters mentioned in a gazetteer piece recur as the first-person singular of a narrative passage, or artists described and located in the guidebook sections are complicated and humanised in extracts from a piece of journalism or a judicial report.

It is, then, hard to know how to read The Islanders (thus the enforced vacation for my pencil hand). What might it mean, for instance, to follow the REFERENCES clearly indicated in the text, to treat this novel as hypertext rather than start at page one and go forwards? Should we hang our interest on the peaks of narrative which rise above the topographical detail, following the relationship of the reclusive novelist (and author of The Islanders‘ introduction), Chaster Kammeston, and the revered social revolutionary known to the public only as Caurer? Can we read this novel, as we did The Prestige, as a story about public rivalry, doubled identity and the cost of creation, and is the murder of a stage magician part of that tale or to one side of it? Indeed, might this whole ‘novel’ in fact be a form of self-reflective criticism, with a character who writes a novel called The Affirmation, others artists who in some cases literally disappear into their own works, and cartographers attempting to map impossible landscapes? Is the book all of these, or none of them?

In one of the best reviews of the book I have read, Niall Alexander at Strange Horizons emphasises this intense uncertainty, arguing for the multivalence of Priest’s text, the endlessly movable frequency of its concerns. He personally opts for a vision of the book as a disputation on art, but I rather agree with (for it is again, Pimpernel-like, he) Adam Roberts when he urges specifity and uses the word ‘connections’; on the other hand, I think the connections of art are only one aspect of the way in which the novel interrogates the ligaments of its world – after all, Priest lingers over interpersonal connection, too, and indeed his entire text tests and teases how we understand narrative causality.

The novel ends with an elegiac chapter focusing on the relationship between a Yin- and Yang-ish pair of conceptual artists named Yo and Oy. Yo tunnels – at times so vociferously and inspirationally that she inspires one island to sink itself – and in doing so creates connections that would otherwise not exist. Like the time vortex that lies at the heart of the archipelago, Yo’s installations weird distance, toy with transit. They do so not just as art but as physical paths from one place to another – you can walk across the surface, but you might also follow an entrance to an exit.

Where Le Guin’s disappointment finds its justification, however, is in her criticism of the book’s heart. Alas, for a novel so clearly about connection it can at times fail to, well, connect: its characters, from the apparently (but not conclusively) serial-killing painter Dryd Bathurst to the campaigning journalist Dant Willer, can at times feel more like literary tools than real people. And yet. The Dream Archipelago is precisely that, a device of prosody: in The Affirmation, it is the fictional space of the schizophrenic novelist Peter Sinclair; Priest himself has written a sequence of short stories named after the islands the current book proposes to describe. “Reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm,” writes Chaster Kammeston in his introduction to the book-within-the-book (an introduction he would be incapable of writing was the book, which depicts his death, entirely rigorous). The way in which The Islanders leaves the reader feeling distanced and disoriented, then, is part of its effect, one of its many means of interrogating what it is we mean when we say, write or read ‘connection’. This gives it a weirdly unsatisfying sort of completeness.

The Islanders attains its depth from the intricacy of its formal invention – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is this quite magnificent structural achievement which off-sets what might traditionally been seen as the weaknesses arrayed against its success. Also at Strange Horizons, both Paul Kincaid and Duncan Lawie write of second reads, and I might add that a fourth, fifth and sixth would also probably reward. This is a measure of Priest’s cold kind of boldness, and ultimately of what is a remarkable novel. It deserves reams of marginalia – next time.

Unambiguous Utopia in “The Dispossessed”

Aileen's copy of the book looks like this.

On the A line of the RER in Paris last weekend, we spotted a chap wearing a black t-shirt. The design was simple: in all white lines, a man cowered in a battery cage, stretching his arm between the bars to slot a piece of paper into a small box which squatted on the roof of the cell. Above were the words, “Le droit de vote.” Below, “Le droit de choisir votre maître.”

Also that weekend, I was reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A friend (hi, Aileen!) thrust this book into my hands at the very moment she learned I hadn’t previously read it. The fairly bald piece of polemic stamped on that Parisian’s shirt got me thinking about the far subtler politics of the novel in my bag. The protagonist is Shevek, a brilliant physicist forced from his anarchist homeworld of Anarres to the capitalist hegemony of its sister planet, Urras, from which his ancestors fled centuries ago, inspired by the writings of the syndicalist philosopher, Odo. “Our men and women are free – possessing nothing, they are free,” he insists at an Urrastian party. “And you the possessers are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes – the wall, the wall!” [Gollancz SF Masteworks edition, 2002, pg. 199]

The Dispossessed famously opens with a wall, the one built around the space port of Anarres by the planet’s inhabitants, to keep out the pollutants of their corrupt, market-driven cousins. And yet, of course, that same wall locks the Anarresti in. The subtitle of The Dispossessed has come to be accepted, following the lionising of a particular piece of first edition blurb, as ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’. But there are at least two propblems with this appelation: one, there is clearly more than one utopia in the novel; and, two, there is no ambiguity attempted, at least not when reading the novel today. If the Le Guin of 1974 was attempting to posit a hippie-feminist commune in space which nevertheless felt real, time has yet further worn away those ideals. But it seems to me that her approach was never so simplistic: late in the novel, the Terran ambassador to Urras paints that planet as a paradise. “I know it’s full of evils,” she admits, “full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. But it is also full of good, of beauty, of vitality, achievement. It is what a world should be! It is alive, tremendously alive – alive, despite all its evils, with hope. Is that not true?” [pg. 286]

Shevek can do nothing but nod – all of that is true. And Le Guin’s Terran ambassador, from an Earth ruined and defoliated, full of plastic detritus and wasted potential, also gave me pause. Her objection to the harsh, bureaucratic, joyless life of the Anarresti anarchist – all allocated labour and scarce rations – is also mine: that it is not enough merely to abolish property; to liberate a people truly is to release in them the capacity to be happy, to lust for life and exhibit hope. The Odonian solution – to abolish property, centralisation and the state – is also the removal of much of that which can alleviate suffering both in real ways (the state can interfere, it can level) and in transitory ways (property can console and, yes, divert). On Anarres – and Le Guin deals with this in some of her most fascinating passages in the novel – even love and romance is a brutal sort of occupation. In The Dispossessed, unalloyed anarchism is, as much as unalloyed capitalism, the removal of all that can comfort, console and calibrate.

And so the wall. By adopting an option or approach, we risk locking out the benefits of the alternatives. By isolating ourselves in our own pursuits, as Shevek does, we refuse the ability of others to help us; by pooling ourselves into a collective, as the faceless masses of the Urrastian communist utopia of Thu do, we render our lives featureless and flattened. And yet in the capitalist superpower of A-Io, there are everywhere Urrastians ready to overthrow their system, which rewards the already privileged – the rich, men – and marginalises the perennially vulnerable – the poor, women. The great trick of The Dispossessed is that none of these perfected systems (and what is fascinating about Le Guin’s political systems is their purity – so its capitalism is not governed by social democracy, its communism would not be recognised by modern day China) are presented as ambiguous. There is something unambiguosly wrong with all of them.

No coincidence, then, that Shevek’s great contribution to physics is the Theory of Simultaneity, a conception of space-time which enables instantaneous communication across the stars. All things, all moments, exist at once, in a kind of balance. So, too, all systems of government? Indeed, if anything in the novel is treated by its characters as a pipe dream, a myth, an unlikely utopia, it is a world of simultaneity: “Simultaneity!” scoffs Sabul, Shevek’s mentor at Abbenay University, upon their first meeting. “What kind of profiteering crap is Mitis feeding you up there?” [pg. 89] In part, Shevek’s brilliance is in this way rejected by his levelling society – don’t eogize, he is constantly told – whilst Urras embraces the concept. This is the reason for Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again.

But the Urrastian inability to conceive of the unifying potential of the Theory – their need to profit from it and conquer with it – is as much a rejection of its truth as the Anarresti jealousy. The Theory of Simultaneity is the only real tool in the novel which has a chance of knocking down the walls and bridging the gulfs between the competing, but equally corrupting, conceited governing systems. It is the utopia; Shevek’s heroism is in remaining true to that ideal, rather than any single political creed.

Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia”


When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.

This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]

Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.

In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.

What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.

(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)

The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.

The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.

Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.