The Islanders: End of Book Discussion Part 1 - Structure


There's no designated reading for next week, but we'll use the opportunity to let some people catch up and discuss the book as a whole. We can also revisit our future plans.

I thought I'd start by flagging some questions, comments, and themes that came up in the earlier chapters to see if we've found any answers to them at the end. I'm quoting from earlier discussions, but deliberately not including people's names. These were all interesting and thoughtful comments that I thought were worth discussing as a group. The questions are addressed to all, and the comment is just there to illustrate.

This will be broken into several threads. I'm starting to post them now so they aren't all piled on top of the Aztec Century discussion.

Is The Islanders a novel?

Have you come to a conclusion about this? If it's not a novel, what is it? My take is that it is, however unconventional the format.


So far I have found the book fascinating but (perhaps) slightly impenetrable! (I won't try to make an argument that this is a kind of mimesis for the fascinating but impenetrable Archipelago, but on a better day I am sure that such an argument could be made...)

Has a better day arrived? Does the structure of the book reflect the subject matter?

The book is presented as a collection of snippets about islands, places. But the title of the book is The Islanders, referring to the people who live there. Are we focusing on the wrong part?

This question was asked just before we started to get to the more obvious narrative about Commis the mime, but not before we were introduced to some of the islanders (like Kammeston, in the introduction, and Esphoven Muy, the wind studier, in the first entry. So how did this question resolve itself for you? Was the book about islanders, or islands, or something else?

I'm starting to suspect that we might have filler sprinkled throughout, because there isn't enough material for a 'real' novel. Like a lot of double albums, that are really only three sided.

I know I've wondered at this myself, too - whether Priest had collected a few short stories - not enough to fill a book - but needed to publish something, so he pulled these island descriptions out of his hat. The answer that I've come to is that yes, maybe this was the genesis of the book, but it grew in the telling. It feels altogether too intricately crafted to me to be haphazard, or the product of laziness. What is your conclusion?

I'm starting to wonder if a 'slow read' is a useful way to read this book. As I think @RichardAbbott said that it was hard to stop reading, so perhaps the chunks we are reading are too small, and we can't get a sense of larger structures that would appear if we read the book over say a two week vacation in the Islands.

This is a fair point. We've discussed the merits of a slow read and I don't think there's much to add to that, but I do wonder if people might appreciate the book more reading it, as I first did, over the course of a week while lounging on an island. I would say that I liked it more on the first reading, mainly because I never stopped to consider the flaws or think too much about the meaning of everything, only to find that meaning perhaps unfindable. On the first and faster reading, I was left with an emotional impact that I didn't quite have on my second reading (which was a more clinical reading). I gave the book 5 stars the first time, but only 4 stars this time. Do you have any thoughts on the speed of the reading? For the most part, I thought the groupings of the chapters in each week's readings held together quite well thematically - the only thing I would have changed was to split week 3 into two weeks.

As a gazetteer, I wonder what the overall narrative of the book will be. Reading it could be a similar exercise to reading Always Coming Home.

I agree that there are similarities with Always Coming Home, though I think the emotional experience that comes from the reading is very different. How did the exercise of reading these books compare for you.

I'm struck by how privileged and uncurious the reader is assumed to be. As a travelogue I feel like I'm reading a Lonely Planet book - this is what's important about a place, for outsiders. I don't find my memories of travel are really about the things talked about in such books.

How privileged and incurious is the reader assumed to be? Who is the reader? Within the fiction, the reader is assumed to be someone who needs to, or wants to, travel to some of these islands, or is perhaps wondering about them. We're told the Islanders are incurious people, so perhaps it's true the 'in fiction' reader is assumed to be incurious? Do you think Priest assumed that you, the real world reader, was incurious? My thinking was the opposite - that this book would only appeal to the curious, to those who wanted to delve deeper into the puzzle of who did what and when, or to find out what the next piece of the puzzle was. It certainly wouldn't be satisfying for those who just wanted to be led along a tidy narrative.

As to the nature of travel books, I read quite a few. They generally come in two types. The more familiar type are guide books, which are meant to describe the nature of the place, some of it's most important sights, and give practicalities. The older and perhaps more interesting type are travelogues, which describe one person's travels through a place. They are more useful for describing the 'past' of a place than it's present (guidebooks are updated every year or few; travelogues never are), and do not really trade on being factually correct. When you visit a location, you expect the things found in the guidebook to be mostly true. You never expect to be able to have the exact same experience as the traveloguer, though.

What's being described above is the difference between a guidebook and a travelogue.

There is a series of books called Travellers Tales Guides, which are a hybrid. These are collections of short stories or excerpts from longer travelogues which, taken together, give a rounded view of what the place and its inhabitants are like. At the end of the book is a short 'What You Need To Know' section that gives some of the practicalities. As a 'guide' they aren't very comprehensive, but in many ways they provide much more than a guide book ever could.

But I think we understand now that The Islanders is neither a travelogue nor a guide book, though it bears some resemblance to both.

Priest is pretty confident in the reader's motivation. Why do we continue reading these books? And I wonder about calling this a novel... The genre is meant to enable a kind of critique (scientific critique), a kind of critique that cannot be launched against Priest's book. But by realising that, you learn how to nullify scientific critique by deflection rather than engagement. Undermine the genre, you undermine the institution.

It would be nice to only have to deal with the content and audience of a book, but I think we are being thrust into having to consider the effects of their consumption as well, and so having to re-consider and re-assess the past in light of what has grown out of it.

What do people think about the format of the book with respect to the content? Is it confusing to present fiction in a 'list' format? Does it do a disservice to society, in the long rung?

I do NOT think Priest has any kind of map in his head, unless it is a narrative one. I feel like he spends a lot of time setting up a dreamy world in which anything he wants to write is possible and yet because of that nothing of an extreme nature is possible. I do not, for instance, expect to see an isle of dragons.

What about an island of thrymes? Or an island of vampiric towers? Did you expect that? Isn't it true of all fictional settings that they are created to allow the writer to tell us what she or he wants to tell us, but don't allow for things of an extreme nature?


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    The Islanders is neither a guidebook nor a travelogue: it's a long-ish work of fiction that adopts some of those conceits. Is it a novel? I don't know enough about the definitions to give an answer.

    I think there's plenty of filler in the book. I suspect it's a book that's better appreciated by people who've previously read and liked books in the same setting, as it gives some insight into strange corners of the world.

    Did the structure work? I think partially. I liked that we often saw the same event from different points of view and that asked us to reconsider our impressions. But if that was the point of the book, it was barely followed through. I think the book would have been better if it had concentrated on a few events and kept to those, rather than digressing into unconnected short stories and fragments of left-over world-building.

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    First let me say what an awesome set of discussion starters these posts are :) Well done!

    Picking out some of your points:
    Structure - I still don't think it's a novel, though definitely a work of fiction. For example, although it is presented in a particular order, I don't think it needs to be read in that order. The intro says as much "the book is arranged in alphabetical order... the order in which the articles have been placed is entirely irrelevant" (it was a great suggestion to reread the intro for this week). It is, I think, more like a collection of short stories which you can tackle in any convenient order, or even skip some entirely without losing the sense of the whole. For example, would we have lost out if the three-paragraph entry for Derill / Sharp Rocks had been omitted? Some of the short chapters do give extra information on the "main storylines", for example the comparatively short entry on Fellwnstel / Spoiled Sand tells us that the hunt for the killers of Commis began there. Is this a crucial detail? I don't know, but it adds something to an otherwise fairly terse chapter.

    On balance, I feel that many of the little touches are of this character - they might mean something, or they might not - but I have found it almost impossible to tell which is which. Maybe if one set out a kind of mind map listing all the various bits and pieces they might form a coherent pattern, but I haven't time and energy for that. It is yet another more abstract way of saying that there is no map to the islands.

    Who is the reader ? (within the context of the fiction-as-gazetteer) - This is not clear. Again, the intro makes out that essentially nobody would actually try to travel to most of these places, and indeed that purposeful travel is almost impossible. Most people end up where they didn't intend to, and don't end up where they planned. This is, surely, a good description of dream life and an unlikely one for real life? But who is dreaming? CP? Us? The islanders?

    I have other comments and will either find a good place to put them or else revisit this one later...

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    Couldn't find another suitable place for this, but one little nugget I got from rereading the introduction was that the northern continent hosts around sixty different warring factions, constantly quarreling and making short-lived alliances. I had assumed (and I don't know why i assumed this) that there were just two adversaries. But apparently that assumption was way off.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Couldn't find another suitable place for this, but one little nugget I got from rereading the introduction was that the northern continent hosts around sixty different warring factions, constantly quarreling and making short-lived alliances. I had assumed (and I don't know why i assumed this) that there were just two adversaries. But apparently that assumption was way off.

    Is that another feature of the Archipelago's genesis? There's the semi-exotic Mediterranean islands opening up to UK tourists. There also the backdrop of the two rival imperial powers of USA and USSR, each with a web of client states, fighting proxy wars in distant lands.

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    I guess that’s why Glaund is sometimes referred to as simply ‘The Federation’. I only ever recall Glaund and Faiandland being mentioned in a military context.
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    I found it easiest to read them as an anthology of completely separate short stories mixed in with random travel guide listings. Far more enjoyable.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Couldn't find another suitable place for this, but one little nugget I got from rereading the introduction was that the northern continent hosts around sixty different warring factions, constantly quarreling and making short-lived alliances. I had assumed (and I don't know why i assumed this) that there were just two adversaries. But apparently that assumption was way off.

    I remembered that and was not surprised to read the later apparent contradiction that Glaund and Faiandland were the two two superpowers. Of course if they are separate stories, there is no contradiction...

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