Affirming The Affirmation

published: Mon, 8-Dec-2003   |   updated: Thu, 27-Oct-2005
Wells cathedral

Recently, our neighbor's elder son (who's 9) had a school project to complete on what people read, what they liked reading, what they didn't, and so on. He interviewed both Donna and myself, methodically filling out the survey questionnaire. He didn't quite have the tip of his tongue peeping out in concentration, but it felt like it.

One of the questions was: What is your favorite book? Donna took some time over this, finally plumping for The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père.

Me? I went for the book that had the most effect of any book I've ever read, a real coup de foudre on first reading: The Affirmation by Christopher Priest.

For those of you who haven't come across this author before, let me give a little background. Priest is a British author who made his initial name in the science fiction world. From inauspicious beginnings (Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), a dark tale of English society disintegrating from an influx of African boat people), he quickly developed his own style, twisting reality until you weren't quite sure what was going on. Examples of these novels include Inverted World (1974) about a society that lives in a hyperbolic universe in a city on wheels; or do they?, and The Space Machine (1975) a wonderful "scientific romance" in a Wellsian mould that somehow explains both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Then came A Dream of Wessex (1977).

At the time I read this, I was firmly in my "science fiction" period. Just out of my teens, at university. (My wife could convince you that I've never left it.) I read this novel and was simply swept away with its premise: what is real? What is reality? Is it just our perceptions? It can be read as "straight" SF, but its real power lies in what happens after you put it down. It evokes an England that doesn't exist (the ice cap has melted, and southern England is now a series of small islands, echoes of Priest's later Dream Archipelago stories), because it's an England that has been conjured up as a kind of mass hallucination. In doing so, the novel enjoins us to imagine the England we would like to see. The hallucination is set up by a thought machine in a laboratory in a future England that is overpopulated, all rainy darkness, and full of political strife. Consequently it's no wonder that the experimentees conjure up a world that has less people, more sunlight, and is a happier, less complicated place. Problems occur when an angry and bitter man is introduced as another subject into the machine.

The novel explores how we can imagine and make the world around us into somewhere better, or worse. How we can bend, through sheer force of will, the world in which we live into something else. For me, it came at a point where I was moving away from SF and exploring mainstream and twentieth-century classic fiction, and seemed to embody something more then SF had traditionally served. An exploration of reality and the mind that evokes that reality.

Consequently, when The Affirmation came out (1981) I was expecting something a little along those lines. How utterly wrong I was.

The novel starts off with a contemporary feel. The protagonist, Peter Sinclair, has had a bereavement, his girlfriend has left him, and he's been made redundant and kicked out of his flat. He ends up in a old dilapidated cottage in the countryside, with a remit to do it up for an old family friend. Instead, lonely and alone, fretting over the recent events, he decides to write his autobiography in order to understand and explain what happened to him. He's not enamored with his first attempt so instead decides to paraphrase and explore his life by writing about another man who lives in a land of the imagination, a country like England bordered to the south by the Dream Archipelago. This alter-ego has won a lottery competition for a treatment that endows eternal life to the subject. There is a snag: the memory is lost and fragmented by the operation and so he must write down the story of his life to have a past ready and waiting for when he wakes up.

So, we have a novel about a man who is writing about himself as a character (also called Peter Sinclair) in another novel who is also writing an autobiography. And of course this other character decides that his memory of his past is untrustworthy and so writes a novel about a character called Peter Sinclair who lives in this fantasy land called England.

The book is written in the first person, whether it is the original or the fantasy Peter Sinclair who is talking. The effect can be extremely disorienting, at the same time as being utterly engrossing. Events swirl around each other, merge together and split apart. You look for coincidences, for links, for patterns, for ideas on what the novel as a whole is about. Also, Priest introduces a theme in this novel that re-emerges in later works, that of unreliable memory, or, worse, unreliable narrators. Just because the book is written in the first person doesn't mean that you shouldn't trust what the narrator is telling you. The original Peter Sinclair turns out, within a few pages of the book, to be slightly deranged. Or does he? You're never quite sure whether a particular part of the book is about the first Peter Sinclair, or whether it's about the Peter Sinclair imagined by the imaginary Peter Sinclair.

Rereading this, I've made the novel sound a little calculating perhaps. That is not my intention; as I read this book, I felt captivated by the protagonists as they struggled to understand themselves and each other. The work has a enchanting quality to it and draws you into its dream world. The spinning of reality, of what is real and what is imagined, ends up being truly devastating by the book's close. I was so caught up in it, I didn't want it to end, with the various realities converging and finally annihilating each other.

For me, over the twenty years since I first read this book, it echoes still. Priest has come damned close to this perfection a couple of times since (The Glamour and The Extremes are examples), only to surpass it with his latest work, The Separation. It is Priest's oeuvre, his explorations of how to subvert and enhance the first person novel, that means, to me, Ian McEwan's Atonement feels like half-hearted cheating. The themes in Priest's novels could be compared to Philip K Dick (a great explorer of subversion of reality), but that comparision doesn't do justice to Priest's enchanting lyrical prose.

I understand that Christopher Nolan, the director of Memento and Insomnia, has announced that he is going to be filming another novel by Priest, The Prestige. I can hardly wait.