The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
I’ve heard Christopher Priest’s 1981 novel The Affirmation described as regressive, an ouroboros eating its own tail, a Moeibus strip. While there is undoubtedly an M.C. Escher quality to the book — a blurring of reality — the beginning and end are simply too different to form a contiguous whole reverting back on itself. They’re opposite ends of a spectrum in fact, and the appeal of the novel is immersing one’s self in the subjective reality Priest slowly unwraps and getting lost in the world of memories as a result.
The true nature of The Affirmation requires thought; the easy part is relaxing throughout the journey. Priest patiently and precisely lays down the text — words like railroad ties on a Sunday train ride to the country — the story moving effortlessly along. The sublime prose lulls the reader into the deceivingly mundane story of Peter Sinclair. Though seeming an ordinary man, a rash of bad luck forces him into a cottage in the country to rethink life. His father’s death, a bad breakup, and being made redundant at his London job all combine to drive him into a retrospective of sorts, trying to discover what brought him to such an impasse. The details of his memory are hazy, so Sinclair decides to write his autobiography in the hope the words manifested on paper will clarify his problems. Family, girlfriends, and lovers all converging as he writes, Sinclair’s real troubles only begin when he sits down to the typewriter.
For those who enjoyed the Nolan brothers’ film Memento, The Affirmation will be a delight. With the limitations of the written word innately less imposing than film’s, Priest fully utilizes the novel form to examine the relationship between memory, the past, and reality. One way in which he takes advantage is to use a plot device literati everywhere love: the text within a text. While dangerously pretentious, Priest’s use of Sinclair’s autobiography as a tool to comment upon the human condition is brilliant and is every reason why the usage of the device is so highly rated. In an intra-textual fashion not unlike Nabokov’s Pale Fire (though with less exotic language), Sinclair’s autobiography plays a key role in relating the theme of memory to the examination of character, proving Priest’s talents well founded.
That being said, the medium is the book’s only real fault. Novels need to be read in linear fashion, one sentence, one word, one letter at a time, that is, rather than viewed as a whole, so the transition points of plot are raw and exposed, and there’s nothing any author can do to completely disguise them. Priest does the best with the tools at his disposal but, nevertheless, there are jumping off points in The Affirmation that a visual artist could easily blend into other parts of their image with few the wiser. Without spoiling the major premise, suffice to say if the narrative had attempted to slip smoothly back and forth between the selected plot points — like merging red to purple to blue in a color wheel — the novel would have become abstract poetry. Thankfully, Priest prioritized the transparency of his message and sided with clarity toward progressing the story. The individual transition points may glare, but upon finishing the novel, the connect-the-dots form a meaningful picture.
In the end, The Affirmation is a cerebral read examining the subjectivity of existence in a manner defying categorization. Despite being shelved alongside Priest’s other sci-fi work, genre presence is limited. Existential in nature, the novel uses one or two tropes of Philip K. Dick, but thankfully none of his style; Priest’s prose is literary and a pleasure to relax into. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, it is clean and smooth, the right word forever pulled out of the bag at the right time, the reader’s understanding both ex- and implicit as a result. From the Yeat’s quote at the outset yearning for something more, to the Proust-like sobering conclusion, literary science fiction does not get much better than The Affirmation.
Wow, Jesse, what a beautiful review!
This book was not at all on my radar, but it looks like something I would love. Thanks, Jesse!
Well, you’ve convinced me to add it to the to-read list.
Christopher Priest is one of the greatest science fiction writers, ever. Anything (literally, anything) he’s written the past three decades (some would say four, but I’ll say three to be on the safe side) can be picked up and enjoyed at many different levels – from the superficiality of plot to the deeper levels that need chewing over. I would say take a risk and pick up anything in that time period, but it wouldn’t really be a risk.