The other week, Jackie from Farm Lane Books asked for recommendations of literary science fiction and fantasy. I recommended (amongst other names) Christopher Priest, as did Amanda of Floor to Ceiling Books; Jackie subsequently read The Prestige, and now it’s one of her top 20 favourite books. Of course, I’m pleased that Jackie enjoyed it so much; but I was also reminded that I am not as well-read in Priest’s bibliography as I’d like to be, so I took his 1981 novel The Affirmation down from the shelf.
Having lost his father, job, home, and relationship, all in quick succession, Peter Sinclair is at his lowest ebb. He takes on some work helping to renovate a friend’s country cottage; inspired by his ability to turn his vision for one of the rooms into reality, Peter resolves to write his autobiography, in the hope that, by doing so, he can make some sense of his life. After trying various approaches, he decides that the best way to achieve what he wants is to write metaphorically about his life; it won’t be what ‘actually’ happened, but it will attain (what Peter sees as) the ‘higher truth’ of capturing what the events of his twenty-nine years meant to him.
So, Peter creates an alternative version of himself, with the same name, but living in an imaginary world, and all the key people in his life given different names – and writes this Peter’s life story to represent the ‘higher truth’ of his own. Peter has almost completed the manuscript when he is interrupted by the arrival of his estranged sister, Felicity, and is forced to break off his work mid-sentence.
This happens in the fourth chapter of The Affirmation; the fifth is again narrated by Peter Sinclair (his voice is recognisably the same), but it’s the Peter of the imaginary world (a world, incidentally, also used by Priest as the setting for his ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories), who is sailing south to a clinic, having won a lottery to undergo a medical procedure which will effectively confer immortality on him. Okay, one supposes, this must be an extract from the ‘real’ Peter’s manuscript – but, no: the Peter in this world has also written a fictionalised autobiography; and the events of this strand subtly contradict what we know of the other Peter’s manuscript. One is left with no option but to conclude that the ‘imaginary’ world has its own valid reality.
And so, as the novel continues, the two realities shift back and forth, with the reader never allowed to pin down one of them as being more real than the other. Even the nature of the text presented to us is uncertain: we never knowingly get to read any of the manuscripts referred to, so what exactly is the testimony that we’re reading? And we only know Peter Sinclair through his words on the page, so what can we trust? This is what Priest is so good at: undermining our expectations, hiding the truth, making the realities of his stories profoundly uncertain.
There are imaginative pleasures a-plenty in The Affirmation, then; but the novel also works on other levels. It’s a fine meditation on memory, and how it can make us who we are. Peter believes that memory is central to the creation of identity, but he also knows how fallible our memories can be; this is played out in several different ways in the novel, including a quite literal one in the shape of the athanasia treatment – a side effect of the procedure is to erase patients’ memories; they’re required to complete a questionnaire beforehand, which will be used to reconstruct their memories – but can they possibly be the same people afterwards?
The Affirmation is also an acute portrayal of a man in a fragile mental state (though, as noted, it resists being interpreted as solely a tale of delusion). We discover early on that Peter hasn’t actually painted his ‘white room’ at all (though he imagines it painted, and it’s that ‘higher truth’, he insists, that really matters); this is only one of the first indications that the world viewed through Peter’s eyes may not be what a third party would see. This leads the protagonist into difficulties relating to other people. For example, Peter’s ideas of what his girlfriends (in both worlds) are like don’t reflect the reality, which puts a strain on his relationships; the way Priest reveals the ramifications of this is simply superb.
I’ve read three of Chris Priest’s novels now, and they have all been excellent. Seriously, if you have yet to read him, you’re missing out. As for me, I doubt it will be long before I read another of his books, and I very much look forward to doing so.