If there is anything we have an evolving relationship with in life it is time. Small children essentially ignorant of the concept and the elderly perhaps all too aware, our perception of time changes throughout our lives. Sometimes by sub-conscious degree and other times as the result of dramatic events, who we are—our identities—are closely linked to our understanding and relationship with the clock. (How was that for a Proustian review intro?) Engaging with this evolution in highly intriguing fashion is Christopher Priest’s 2016 The Gradual.
Alessandro Suskind has the misfortune of being born in the country of Glaund. A totalitarian, oppressive country persistently at war, many of its best sons are whisked away in the military draft, including his brother, Jacj, and never seen again. Due to a lull in the fighting, when Alessandro comes of age he avoids a similar fate and is able to develop his true passions in life, music and composing. Finishing university and getting his feet wet in the field at an early age, it isn’t long before he has some success. Publishing a couple of minor symphony and orchestral arrangements, his name becomes known even beyond Glaund. Asked one day to participate in a ten-week musical tour to a group of neighboring islands, Alessandro gets his first taste of life outside his oppressive Glaund and sees for himself the Dream Archipelago—the far off inspiration for some of his music. His troubles immediately set in, however, upon his return: his wristwatch not matching Glaund time, Suskind has a few pieces of his life to pick up.
Though the novel begins in fully realist mode, Suskind’s return to Glaund upon the completion of his musical tour of the Dream Archipelago makes it known that it is not as such, however. Mode operating somewhere within the fuzzy bounds of surrealism, magic-realism, and slipstream, Priest pulls the white veil of innocence over the reader’s head and gently begins removing it as realization of the story’s reality is revealed one tantalizing step at a time through Alessandro’s journey. The seemingly innocuous wooden stave he is given while on tour becoming something much more meaningful, not to mention symbolic, as his life moves forward, Priest marries a truly interesting plot device with theme in suspenseful, unique fashion.
Another piece to the tapestry, The Gradual is a novel set in Priest’s Dream Archipelago setting. Setting a strong word in this case, Priest has used the vast island group as a playground for personal growth or understanding throughout his career. There are some commonalities (the backdrop of war, the one-degree difference to reality, the spread of mystery, etc.), but overall Priest once again capitalizes on the notion.
Priest has always been known for writing precise, revelatory prose, and nothing changes in The Gradual. One defined word, one lucid sentence, one considered step at a time, he takes the reader through the life of Alessandro Suskind—its complexity deceptively simple due to the effortless manner in which the prose rolls clickety-clack, one perfectly crafted sentence after another. One minute the reader is reading of the life of an ordinary man, and somehow the next they are caught up in an experience that has Suskind questioning fundamental realities of his life through music, family, and the exigencies time places upon us whether we want them or not-and can’t wait to continue reading. (And the conclusion is everything as subtly surprising as we sub-consciously knew it would be.)
The Gradual garnered a minimum of recognition upon its release, and the reasons are reasonably clear. A staid, human novel lacking the explosions and laser fights so many genre readers seek, it’s a novel best appreciated by the more sophisticated, literary reader who makes no distinctions for genre. Someday perhaps I will write an article about the sad niche of ‘literary fantastika’ and the love its writers must have to continue writing in the vein without selling out, but for now, suffice to say Priest is, and has long been, one of the niche’s main inhabitants. Highly recommended.