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. Opposite ends of a spectrum in fact, 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 requiring 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 to the country—the story moving effortlessly along. Novel as art, 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 memory hazy, 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 sitting down to the typewriter.
For those who enjoyed the Nolan brothers’ film Memento, The Affirmation will be a delight. 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. 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 needing to be read in linear fashion, one sentence, one word, one letter at a time, that is, rather than viewed as a whole, the transition points of plot are raw and exposed, nothing any author can do to completely disguise them. Priest doing the best with the tools at his disposal, there are nevertheless 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.