The Islanders: End of Book Discussion Part 3 - Meaning



What's missing is a reason to care.

This one came up a lot, readers commenting that Priest hadn't given them a reason to care. If you felt that way, did you ever find a reason to care as the book went on? Why or why not? What could Priest have provided that would have changed things? I personally always cared, but I'm someone who is very curious about places and histories. I was intrigued from the beginning - probably because the nature of the book itself intrigued me - and I always cared to keep reading and to learn more. At first it was about islands (and winds, and thrymes, and vortices, and tunnels), then later it was about the characters themselves, and how they related. But this obviously wasn't true for everyone.

The delivery is a kind of deadpan monologue of the fantastic. Somehow it also reminded me of the book-that-shall-not-be-named. In that book (which happens to be about whaling), every other chapter is a kind of treatise. This feels like a treatises delivered in a travelogue style framework. (Ironically, traveling without traveling, right?) In this case it's about the nature of wind, and perhaps even more about the things that are changed by wind and how - all the evidence of wind's (or I should say winds') effects.

This book definitely bears some resemblance to the book-that-shall-not-be-named in this sense. In that book, which happens to be about whaling, those treatises can be read as distractions to the narrative, or they can be read as hints to the deeper meaning of the book. Without them, you might never come to the conclusion that the book is about god, as well as about whaling.

What's the point of this book? It's not to tell a gripping story. It's not a puzzle for us to solve. It's not an insight into the human condition (none of the characters has any depth). Is it meant to be an allegory of our world? If so, what point is it trying to make? Or is this about us basking in the reflected glory of Priest's masterful worldbuilding? (Ahem.)

Any further reflections on these things at the end? Are there no stories (gripping being subjective)? No puzzles? No insights? Or was it all just a vanity project?

Perhaps if I had started at the beginning it would make more sense. Did we leave the first couple of books aside on purpose? I think there must be something interesting to say here about sequencing, but I don't yet know what it is.

I think that quite probably this book would have been easier for people to digest if we had started with The Affirmation, then read The Dream Archipelago, and finally this one. Lesson Learned. My own experience was to enter the setting with this book, which I found a useful and enticing introduction, then read The Dream Archipelago. I hadn't read The Affirmation before we started this. I never had a problem getting into this book, but obviously that hasn't been true for everyone. I still don't really think there's any 'informational' order to the books (i.e. you need to read one to get the information needed to understand the other) but reading the novel first would have helped those who wanted 'story' to ease into the setting better, and answered a lot of the 'why is this in this book' questions.

If a life is a narrative, it needs an end. Many continental philosophers, influenced by literary theory, contend that life can have meaning only if and when it ends. Yet I have a subjective sense that my life has meaning in the here and now, not merely when I contemplate its end. Can this part of my life have meaning without the overarching meaning of the whole? I think so. Perhaps this part will be brought into greater highlight after I die and given a greater richness (or perhaps even highlight the paucity of meaning of this particular part), but that would necessarily be done by someone else not experiencing my subjective meaning in this moment.

This setting has meaning both in the here and now (for most of you, it's the only book you've read in the setting) but it also has ongoing meaning, because it's just one book in this setting and other books explore more and different aspects of it, or explore some of the ideas in this book in more depth. Do you feel this book should have been more self-contained? Has it succeeded or failed as an introuction?

I thought about this last week but didn’t have time / energy to write about it. I come to the notion of trace through hermeneutical phenomenology. The literary turn within phenomenology is indebted to both structuralism and deconstruction. I’ll just speak about Derrida here, the father of deconstruction, although there is a lot of ink spilt about the trace by others.

Derrida’s deconstruction takes binary opposites that conventionally are perceived in a society to be natural constructs and attempts to show that they are artificial. Binary opposites need each other, each depending on the other for meaning. One component of the binary is usually privileged over the other, for example good/evil, light/dark, male/female. Derrida says there is always the trace of one in the other, but even more than that he says there is always the trace of absence in anything present to us.

It is this move that explodes structuralism and drives his critiques crazy. His entire philosophy is one of absence. The linguistic firm of structuralism, semiotics, has its specific binary opposite, the sign. Every sign is the amalgam of a signifier (which, in the case of language, includes words) and the signified (that to which the signifier refers). Semiotics says the signifier brings the signified into our presence. Derrida says it does the opposite. He says there is no signified and every signifier contains the trace of its absence. Language, he says, can never brings objects into our presence, that all they do is continually refer to another signifier and another and another. This chain of signifiers is a sleight of hand that make us think that words brings objects into our presence, but it’s smoke and mirrors.

The islands don’t represent (make present again) anything but just refer to the next island and the next and the next until we realize we’ve circumnavigated the novel and found that meaning is absent.

This has been nagging me since it was posted. We've struggled to fine clear meaning, but engaged in a lot of speculation - is that because there are none? Did we just get a lot of red herrings? Is it worth trying to figure it out? I found a review of THE ADJACENT which echoes this statement above:

Everything here is all very accomplished and worked out. Priest undeniably writes like a dream. But.

Is it all just smoke and mirrors?

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that this is a writer at the height of his powers demonstrating the arbitrariness and unknowability of the world. Another is to question if this is the spectacle of an author writing his cake and eating it. In particular, the drawing in of the Dream Archipelago to The Adjacent, as if in an attempt to bring all of Priest’s recent fiction into a linked whole, may have been a misstep. The Archipelago is certainly a reflection of our world and therefore illuminates it, but it is also distanced from it. The connection with it that Priest establishes here renders it somehow more prosaic.

Priest is, though, an author of considerable gifts and insight, not to mention a searching intelligence. He is entitled to the benefit of any doubt.

All writing is the creation of illusions. As readers we like to think we can penetrate the mist in which they are wrapped. The Adjacent suggests that mist might be all there is.

When going back to the introduction, Kammeston concludes: "None of it is real, though, because reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm. These are only the names of some of the places in the archipelago of dreams. The true reality is the one you perceive around you, or that which you are fortunate enough to imagine for yourself."

The only meaning, then, is that which we as a reader assigns. This brings us back again to that question of who is more important? In this sense, every reader is an island, no? Afterall, we all read a different book!


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    I preferred the unabashed short stories to the collections of guidebook entries. In the stories, there was some connection to the characters which made me more interested. It was difficult to care about people like Bathurst and Yo because we only heard about them ifrom deliberately emotionless second-hand accounts (apart from Yo's appearance in the final chapter). It didn't help that their portrayed art forms were visual or experiential in nature, and weren't richly described in the book.

    @Apocryphal said:
    I think that quite probably this book would have been easier for people to digest if we had started with The Affirmation, then read The Dream Archipelago, and finally this one. Lesson Learned.

    It was a sensible decision to read things in that order. Hindsight's wonderful, but doesn't help at the time. Don't worry about it.

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    Not sure what to think of this. On one level, CP never gave me at least a reason to care, other than a kind of puzzle-solving curiosity. I felt that given the complexity of what he had written, and the comments of other reviewers as supplied by @Apocryphal , there had to be a Grand Design somewhere, and I was simply failing to see it. But despite all (and despite the fact that I would liken ton read others in the series) I still don't see it.

    Nor, really, do I care about any of the "central characters". Take, for example, Commis. It seems undeniable that he died in what was either a seriously complicated murder, or a tragic accident. But do I care? Not really. I don't feel I was ever given enough information or insight to know whether he was a dastardly villain that the world is best rid of, or a sensitive and creative artist whose death lessened the quality of the entire archipelago. Should I congratulate or condemn his killers, whether deliberate or accidental? I don't know.

    So to once again go back to John Donne, Commis's death does not really feel as though it diminishes me, and I don't feel involved with his life or death. So what, perhaps, CP is doing is creating a world in which every man is an island, and nobody's death causes the Archipelago at large to suffer. Which is an interesting topic, though not, I think, a world that I would like to live in!

    In this sense, every reader is an island, no? After all, we all read a different book!

    Except that, at least in my experience, that isn't quite true! The experience of reading this book, or any book, in the context of this club gives me a quite different experience than reading a book on my own. The club as a whole. and individuals within it, ensure that I notice different things, and have a different appreciation, of books than when I read them on my own. So yes, perhaps we do each encounter a different book, but we come away with something of a shared experience that is different to the solitary one (but may Dream Archipelagic readers don't find this :) )

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    Further to my thought at the end of the last chapter about islands being people (or islands being stories about people), consider this third paragraph from the introduction, changing the words Archipelago or Islands to 'city' and or 'people':

    For me the visual aspect of this CITY in which I contentedly live is confined to the handful of PEOPLE I can see in the offing as I walk or travel about close to my house. I know the names of most of them - there are three or four that are too small or unimportant to be named - and I carry a vivid mental picture of them as they appear to me. In rain, sunshine or wind, these neighboring PEOPLE are constant companions, the background scenery to my life. They are lovely and intriguing to behold, they induce moods in me that are always varied and unpredictable, and I never tire of staring at them. They infuse me with the spirit of CITY life, and thus infuse every word I have ever written.

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    Very cool, I like that :)

    Which all made me think... if islands are people, then who are the people in the islands? Individual thoughts? Aspects of someone's personality?

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    Maybe not people, but... landmarks? shops? neighourhoods?

    And, relating this back to gaming, there are different ways to present and use maps in RPGs. One is the precise, realistic method with distances and angles. The other is the node-and-connection model, which is just about interesting places and how you get from one to the other. The geography of the Dream Archipelago is very much like the latter, except without a great deal of attention paid to the connections.

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    I like your description of the node-and-connection maps, and it does seem to me that it should be possible to do such a thing for The Archipelago. As we have said before, the inhabitants know enough to give approximate latitude and longitude measurements, and they know enough to say that such-and-such is reasonably close to so-and-so going south (or whatever). Some day when I have a bit more time I might look and see if anyone has done a schematic map of it all, or whether (as may well be the case) CP has written in some deliberate inconsistencies to make such an attempt impossible.

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    @Apocryphal said:

    The islands don’t represent (make present again) anything but just refer to the next island and the next and the next until we realize we’ve circumnavigated the novel and found that meaning is absent.

    This has been nagging me since it was posted. We've struggled to fine clear meaning, but engaged in a lot of speculation - is that because there are none? Did we just get a lot of red herrings? Is it worth trying to figure it out? I found a review of THE ADJACENT which echoes this statement above:

    I perhaps got carried away with this last sentence in the above quote. When I said meaning is absent, I didn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Deconstruction isn’t necessarily nihilistic. What I meant was that meaning is not readily at hand. Derrida said there is a difference between words as signifiers and what they are signifying, and that exactly what that difference is (meaning) is constantly deferred. We can’t say that we’ve arrived at a meaning.

    Derrida said his deconstruction was primarily a vehicle for justice, which can’t be deconstructed. He wanted to show that conventional binary opposites, with one opposite having primacy over the other, and which are frequently touted as natural, are really artificial constructs, designed to create and maintain power. They, the binary opposites, don’t point to some overarching meaning to be imposed as “only natural” or “God’s will” or some other archetypal grand narrative. Rather, when deconstructed, they point to the absence of exactly that. That doesn’t mean there is no meaning. It does mean that we are constantly creating it.

    “Male” and “female” don’t exist in nature, and neither does the conventional hierarchy of “male” over “female.” Only individual organisms exist, and they should not be equated with the categories we’ve devised to describe them.

    Yo and Oy function as binary opposites. If we buy the structural explanation, this is the key to the “novel.” They need each other and define each other, like yin and yang. Yet there is always a trace (ahem) of each in the other. But Priest subverts the convention. Yo the female is the dominant opposition here. The descant breaks the binary and frees the reader from being locked into one particular meaning.

    I wasn’t making a negative statement about the novel when I said we circumnavigate the globe, running from one island to the next, only to find meaning absent (or deferred). I was saying Priest is showing this deconstructed truth about reality (and art).

    I don’t know that all my thoughts about this are coherent, but I’ve enjoyed doing the thinking.

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    @WildCard Thanks for the comment - I always find your views fascinating. Sounds like you're drawing a distinction between 'Meaning' in the world (i.e. an intent or message from God), and 'meaning' in the text (what the author had in mind and possibly intended us to read.)

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