‘An American Story’ by Christopher Priest Review

An American Story is a novel that revolves around the events of 9/11, but it is explicitly not a novel about conspiracy theories. Christopher Priest goes to great lengths to have his protagonist express his disdain for conspiracy theories and the dubious nature of their origins; yet this is a novel that still questions the accepted order of events and asks why so much of the scientific evidence does not hold together. Some will read that last sentence and say ‘but that is a conspiracy theory’, only going to prove that they, like so many millions of others in the world, don’t actually know the difference between a conspiracy theory and a desire for a more coherent explanation. Conspiracy theories purport answers, often paranoid and outlandish; An American Story is about questions. If you expect answers in a Christopher Priest novel, prepare for disappointment.

The story concerns Ben Matson, a British scientific journalist, whose whirlwind romance with an American publicist called Lil ends abruptly when she is killed on American 77, the airliner that collided with the Pentagon as part of the wave of terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001. However, things are not quite as they seem: Lil was not listed on the passenger manifest, even though he knows she was on that plane, and Lil’s estranged husband Martin Viklund, a high-ranking member of the CIA, is unhelpful to the point of evasiveness. As Ben looks further into the events of that day, he becomes mired in the confusion that surrounds what actually happened, how it was reported to the public and the events that followed in its wake.

As with many of Christopher Priest’s novels, the action takes place over a number of years and is non-linear in its conveyance. Ben’s life has moments where it returns to something approaching normality, but something keeps cropping up that drags him back to 9/11. He accepts a job from a juvenile science magazine to interview the mathematician Kyril Tartarov, only to find that the one-time Russian defector is working at a top secret American airbase in Scotland; he’s not allowed to reveal what he is working on but his particular field of research is into the nature of human perception and how it can be manipulated by the creative release or withholding of information. This, of course, ties in directly with Ben’s interest in the events of 9/11.

Perception is at the heart of this novel. As a counterpoint to Ben’s belief that the way the Western World perceives the events of 9/11 has been distorted, there’s also the mother-in-law from his later marriage to Jeanne, who has dementia and perceives certain events in a way that could not be the truth; nevertheless, her distorted interpretation of the events of the past (she is convinced she met Ben’s ex-girlfriend Lil, though she never met Ben until after Lil’s death) holds a mirror to the way in which the release of information concerning events to which we are not directly privy can be creatively distorted. It’s a theme that has been explored by Priest before, albeit in a different way, in The Prestige and distortion in general – time, geography, scale – is a running theme throughout his books, in works such as The Inverted World and The Gradual.

An American Story is destined to be Christopher Priest’s most controversial novel because 9/11 is still a hot topic 20 years after it happened, but as I mentioned earlier, this is not a book about conspiracy theories; it does not explicitly purport to offer any explanation for what happened on that day, except to suggest that there was more to it than meets the eye. As with most of Christopher Priest’s novels, he lays most of the groundwork, but your brain has to do some of the heavy lifting. If you like books that spell out precisely what is going on and offer a pat explanation for the events you have just read about, then this probably isn’t the book for you… nor any of Christopher Priest’s other novels, to be honest.

This isn’t one of Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago novels, the rough framework that informs some of his books, but an independent piece. It also isn’t really science fiction, though it’s set in a very near future where Scotland is an independent state; Christopher Priest is primarily thought of as a sci-fi author and you’ll probably find it in the sci-fi and fantasy section of the bookshop, but like a lot of the very best sci-fi authors, from Ray Bradbury to Harry Harrison, Priest is able to switch easily to a real world scenario and still maintain the interest of his core readership. Part of the joy of An American Story is that it has such a sense of otherness that you don’t really know whether it’s going to offer a time-space-reality twisting explanation for the events of 9/11.

If you’re a fan of Christopher Priest’s novels, you’ll love An American Story and if you’re simply a fan of good modern literature, you’ll love it too. If you’re a sci-fi fan and have never read Priest before, then it’s probably not the best jumping-on point, but hey – broaden your horizons. This is a great book that sort of defies genre and is all the better for it. I’ve heard rumours that the movie rights to An American Story have been picked up and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige was a great movie, but it was entirely different from the book on which it was based. Christopher Priest is not the most movie-friendly author and I’d go as far as to say that some of his novels are downright unfilmable, but that’s in the future; for now, we have this excellent novel, which I would heartily recommend to anyone, whether you have any interest in 9/11 or not.

‘An American Story’ by Christopher Priest is published in the UK by Gollancz (2019).

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