An American Story by Christopher Priest review – quiet, gripping 9/11 masterpiece

An American Story by Christopher Priest review – quiet, gripping 9/11 masterpiece
An American Story by Christopher Priest review – quiet, gripping 9/11 masterpiece

A science journalists sifts the evidence on the 2001 New York attacks in this powerful novel about fake news, the internet and social media

Smoke over Manhattan … Priest meshes real conspiracy theories about 9/11 with his characters’ own stories. Photograph: Paul Turner/Getty Images

Christopher Priest has made a long career out of novels that twist readers’ expectations, reassembling their understanding of the book in question in real time. His latest at first seems very different from the sleight-of-hand fantasy of The Prestige or his recent work set in the otherworldly Dream Archipelago. An American Story explores the events of 11 September 2001 through the eyes of Ben Matson, a science journalist who lost his partner Lil during the attacks. Lil was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon – or so Matson was told.

9/11 “is now so familiar that the events barely need repeating,” writes Priest, but Matson begins an investigation into what might have happened that day, as well as going over his own memories of Lil, and two occasions on which he interviewed a famous mathematician, looking into the difference between a theorem and a conjecture – the path by which something moves from being a possibility or a fiction into a reality. Those memories lead Matson to questions about 9/11 – which soon route themselves towards the idea of conspiracy.

He uncovers testimony from engineers, scientists and pilots that contradicts the official account. He becomes fascinated by the cognitive dissonance between the truth as it’s presented, and the verifiable facts. Priest meshes real conspiracy theories about 9/11 with his characters’ own stories. An American Story is a novel about fake news: how the internet, and social media in its nascency, was used to present and potentially manipulate public information. Everything in the novel is, as one character says, a conjecture. And yet, such is the power of Priest’s beautifully clean writing, free from stylistic frippery, that I questioned my own memories of 9/11: where I watched the footage, and when, and what I actually saw.

And that, of course, is Priest’s greatest trick. His novels have always revelled in letting the reader uncover hidden truths, and An American Story is no different; except that the narrative is one that felt like fact, until Priest got his hands on it. By drawing on the reader’s own memories, Priest somehow makes us complicit in the story. The book doesn’t set out to convert every reader into a “truther”, but it makes a damned persuasive argument. This is a quiet masterpiece in a career full of them: a gripping, mournful, powerful novel that guides the reader through truths – and fictions – about the way the media and what we recall can work together to fool us.

James Smythe’s I Still Dream is published by Borough. An American Story by Christopher Priest is published by Gollancz. To order a copy for £17.60 (RRP £20) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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