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!