5 September 2018

Review - An American Story by Christopher Priest

Cover by Kushan Rajani
An American Story
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 6 September 2018
HB, 308pp

I'm grateful to Gollancz for an advance copy of this book.

An American Story is an extraordinary book, although it's hard to pin down why in a review, or indeed to pin it down at all. I think that's the point.

Part thriller, part love story, part examination of loss and grief, part history, this book revolves around the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA. It's not science fiction or fantasy - I wondered if Priest would use that to get at the reality (or realities?) behind 9/11 but I don't think he does. (There is one tantalising moment when a character seems to remember something that she shouldn't know, and I wondered if that might suggest, I don't know, deeper workings going on here but, characteristically, this moment is given to a character whose memory is damaged and I take it more as a hint of collective uncertainty, of the reshaping of history and truth, than as a fantastical plot development.

At one level, this story is a simple quest for the truth. Journalist Ben Matson lost his lover Lil in the attacks - lost in the truest sense of the word, as her body was never found, her very movements, even the reasons for those movements obscured among the events of that day. Thesis foreshadowed in an early scene where she and Ben argue over airline flights and meeting points. It's a little bit shifty, one thinks, what is going on here? Whatever the facts, it is a loss Ben lives with, which becomes almost  more concrete fact than its cause. Again, this backward chaining of effects to causes is a central theme of the book.

Despite his grieving, Ben does eventually find a new partner, Jeanne, with whom he has a son and the present of the book in centred on their lives, looking back at 9/11 and its aftermath, so that the book is  set between 2001 and a point several years in our future, when Ben is reminded of what happened to Lil by a new discovery. That's where the thriller elements kick in with Watergate-toned "Deep Throat" moments, encounters with the shadier branches of the US Government, covert meetings and a general atmosphere of threat.

But it isn't really a thriller. In particular we don't get a neat ending or conclusion. Ben has become convinced that something is wrong with the official narrative about 9/11, but he's not trying to nail the guilty or discover the truth except in one very personal sense: he wants to know what really happened to Lil. So don't expect Mission: Impossible style theatrics - this is as much Ben's quest into himself as it is an interrogation of the outside world.

Indeed, from a certain perspective not a lot actually happens, at least in the "present", at least until the very end of the book, with much of the story recounting how things got there. In keeping with that, Priest's writing is restrained, domestic, recording Ben's and Jeanne's lives, the challenges posed when her mother Lucinda becomes infirm and must stay at their house on the island of Bute and their delicate, compromise-filled days (which include negotiating the tricky question of Lil and of Ben's continuing interest in her death). These parts are never dry, filled with insight about how two people organise their lives, their feelings, around each other. Not everything needs to be said, and Priest almost lovingly creates a world around the two.

Yet into even the most domestic moments come noirish moments, consequences, incursions of the wrong. "We were all in the dark, in the shadow of 9/11, victims, or remnants of victims, losers of our lovers, relatives, inadvertent characters in the story that insidiously weaved through and around our lives, untrue, unreliable, irrational and, as yet unfinished"

The book becomes most thriller-like when Ben has to visit London for work and we see the state to which England has fallen post Brexit. It's not nice - Scotland is now independent, London has become a security-ridden hellhole best by CCTV,  armed guards and immigration police. Or when he makes trips to the US. Here, jangling details stoke the tension - details of hotel rooms, flights, ordinary things like a car running low on charge or the junk dumped behind a hotel.

Through all this, we keep circling back to 9/11, to Ben's initial doubts and his subsequent investigation. Priest lays out some of the awkward evidence and theories about planes that weren't there, demolition charges, missing bodies, missing flight data recorders and so forth. This is all very well researched and preoccupies Ben to a point where Jeanne becomes worried about him. Ben's conviction that something is off is bolstered by meetings with shadowy insiders and possibly even with guilty parties. There is, for example, the mathematician Kyril Tatarov whose ideas about the manipulation of truth via media seem to foreshadow the "fake news" familiar today. Tatarov is an enigmatic figure, obsessed with a "Thomas theorem" (which is a real thing) that (if I have understood it correctly) reasons backward from effect to cause.  As I have said, i think that's a central concern of this book, with world events since 2001 seen as the consequence, and the events of 9/11, whatever they were - if, the books seems to say, it's even possible to say what they were - the cause.

The book doesn't come to neat and tidy conclusions. As I have said, it's ultimately not a thriller. There is no revelation of what "really happened", much of the speculation is mutually inconsistent while partial truths are uncovered they don't add up to a complete, alternative narrative. Instead we are left, as is Ben, to worry about the future and about where it will all lead. That is, I think, actually the only tolerable conclusion to this story. There is room for doubt, perhaps, about the events of 9/11, about the official story, but what there isn't room for is the certainty of an alternative account which purports to be "the truth".

Bringing the story to a successful conclusion despite the degree of doubt shows Priest working at his very best. It would have been so easy to let the book sag into despairing cynicism or to set set up some other false certainty by validating conspiracy theories outright but he avoids this, keeping the story mostly personal, looking at the consequences of real actions on his fictional characters. The book ends on a questioning note, though an oddly helpful one.

I will end my review with a quote from Prof Tatarov himself. Speaking of the young men and women busily obscuring history, he says - and it sums up, I think, the central accusation of this book:

"They believe in interpretations, not reporting. They praise opinions, but they despise facts . They talk of actions, whereas they are merely noticing the consequences of other people's actions."

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