THE GRADUAL By Christopher Priest | Published: September 2016 | Publisher: Titan Books
An already accomplished short story and fiction writer, Christopher Priest is perhaps better known as the author of the book behind the Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige, which was released in 2006 and starred Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and David Bowie (as Nikola Tesla). I sat down one Sunday evening a couple of years back and watched it for the first time. I was blown away by everything: the performances, the setting, how well cast it was, and that twist at the end. (I love a good twist.) But above all I loved the story, and I said to myself I had to read some Priest material. I never got around to it until quite recently.
The best writers, I feel, are the ones whose works contain variations on the important philosophies of life; their themes so to speak. In The Prestige, the dueling magicians were constantly trying to outdo each other, to the point of madness, murder, and the loss of identity – how far would they go to prove they were the best at what they did? In Priest’s latest work, The Gradual, his themes are not really evident until you get near the end. When the novel’s protagonist, Alesandro Susskin, a successful musician from the fascist-run Republic of Glaund (more on this later), finally gets to communicate with the mysterious Adepts, the realization that there was a plan all along hits home.
Priest sets his novel on the outskirts of The Dream Archipelago, a place he’s visited before in previous works The Affirmation (1981) and The Islanders (2011). A short story collection called The Dream Archipelago was published in between the two novels in 1999. The Archipelago is placed between Glaund and Faiandland, who have been at war with each other for many years, echoing Eurasia and Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Little is known about them because travel is restricted. Susskin spies one of the islands from his bedroom window as a child and it inspires within him a need to create music dedicated to it. Research – what little there is – reveals the name of some of these islands and so he produces a quartet that gains him much critical and financial success.
When he finds out that his music has been plagiarized by an enigmatic rock musician from way across the world, he’s initially surprised and angry, but decides not to pursue it any further. He’s married now and life is good. He misses his brother Jacj, though, who was conscripted at a young age to serve in the war. He hasn’t seen him in many years, and fears he’s really dead. But life, as it inevitably does, goes on. When Susskin receives an invitation to take part in a cultural tour of the forbidden islands he jumps at the chance to escape the confines of Glaund for eight weeks. His wife, Alynna, is supportive of his decision. After all, it’s only eight weeks, right?
Susskin soon realizes that time doesn’t operate in the same fashion as it does in the rest of the regular world. When he returns from his eventful tour (including a one-night-stand with a beautiful celloist – as you do), Susskin finds out he’s been gone for a lot longer. His parents have since died and his wife has left him for another man. Susskin’s world has fallen apart; all his money is now needed to pay back bills that have mounted up in his absence. He has somehow lost almost two years of his life.
This is where the novel’s title comes into focus. Any loss or gain in time while traveling among the islands is called the “gradual”, and each traveller must carry a stave, a kind of wooden sword that needs to be updated in buildings called Shelterates, which are like customs and immigration centres that each traveller must pass through before their journey continues. Outside of these buildings Susskin sees groups of young people who at first pay no heed to him and his fellow travellers. But the Adepts, as they are called, are necessary and expensive evils if Susskin doesn’t want to fall further behind or ahead in time. All of this becomes clear to him when he’s forced to escape Glaund once again, and embark on a second and more important journey across the Archipelago.
The Gradual isn’t a large novel, it’s just shy of 300 pages, and much of the content is an ode to how music can drive a person onward in life, as well as being a distinctive travelogue in a very strange environment. I found these sections very inspiring, and Priest’s ability to carry the reader through these less than action-packed sections is superlative. Nothing happens for quite a long time, but we’re always in the captivating and questioning company of an excellent protagonist. Susskin is the kind of main character you want to see get answers, because if he does, so do we, the readers. We may or may not get all the answers we initially seek, but when the novel ends, we’re satisfied with the conclusion. Because it feels right. What Susskin works for towards the end, he deserves. His life is his music, but he can’t or won’t forget where he came from, and who inspired him to be who he is. His family, particularly his brother, remain very important to him despite the geographical and temporal distance. He’s lived through war all his life, and when he comes home – if he comes home – all he wants is peace, whenever that happens. Don’t we all?
The Gradual = 9.5/10
Plot: The Gradual, for me, is a story of a man’s passion for music and connection, and the journey he takes to unify both. It works amazingly.
Action: This is an introspective novel, with much of the “action” taking place around Susskin. For much of the time, things are being done to him rather than by him. He’s reactive rather than proactive. This is a good thing, because by the end, Susskin stands up for what he needs. The Adepts provide practically all of the escapism Priest provides.
Setting: The Dream Archipelago remains as enigmatic by the end of the novel as it was at the beginning. It serves it purpose, but Priest brilliantly provides each of the islands visited with their own unique elements. You’re rarely in the same place twice – and if you are, it’s still not the same. Time has that effect on them, too.
Characters: We’re mainly with Susskin, but the supporting roles are filled out nicely, with the Adept personalities most intriguing in their parts. They are at once knowledgeable yet naïve, taking poor Alesandro on a number of cat-and-mouse chases as they try to sort out his time-travelling issues, of which he has a few.