Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review of "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.  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 countrythe 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.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Stumbled across this. Thought I'd mention I'm helping out on a new short film written by Christopher Priest being made in Los Angeles right now called The Stooge. If you're interested: facebook.com/thestooge.

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    1. Thanks for the heads up. It would be great to see more of Priest's work on the big screen.

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  2. "Cerebral read" is the word. It would also fit The inverted world I read in my teens : it was one of those books which made me reconsider/discover how versatile the "novel" can be, as a genre.

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    1. Helene, firstly, thanks for taking the time to make a comment; my part of the blog woods is quiet. Secondly, thanks for the heads-up on The Inverted World. I've read a handful of Priest's works, but not that one. Given the thought he puts into his stories, as well as dedication to style, it's more than likely I will enjoy it as well. Thanks again!

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  3. Great review. Just finished this myself and was floored by the meshing of the "worlds" created and the themes at play here. Wonderful novel. "Inverted World" has now moved to the top of my reading queue.

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    1. Haven't read that one. When you finish, write back and let me know how it is! :)

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  4. Just put down the book. Blew my mind. I'm kinda seeing things at the moment :O

    Then I found your review on librarything. I like the absence of spoilers for would be readers.

    By the way, I've read The Inverted World. Man you gotta read it. You'll enjoy the way it will torment you ;)

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  5. Thanks for the recommendation. Priest is one of those authors who I will buy sight unseen. The problem is, living in Poland the chances of seeing a Priest are few and far between!! Should I run into a copy of Inverted World, however, I will indeed pick it up. Thanks again!

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  6. I just bought this book and I'm so excited to get started. I think Priest is a genius and one of my favorite writers. He's just amazing and never disappoints.

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  7. oh also- Inverted World is great! Read it!

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  8. A quick comment on the Inverted World since it was mentioned a few times above. Agree with your review there. I have just completed it (my 2nd Priest after The Prestige. Starting The Affirmation next). A little underwhelmed, frankly. Bold concept, and certainly ahead of its genre in the early 70's, but not sure it managed to deliver the theme fully. But a good read, nonetheless.

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