Christopher Priest’s 1981 The Affirmation is a novel that superbly outlays the all-too-human manner in which we stifle the world—repress reality—to keep life warm and charming, no ugly burrs or bumps to spoil the vision. But what of the past, our memories of times good and bad? Are these also malleable facets of existence and not the concrete recollections we would have them be? In sideways-brain fashion, Priest’s 1984 The Glamour continues the author’s interrogation of perception by tackling precisely this question.
We first meet Richard Grey convalescing in a rural English hospital. One of the victims of a bomb attack at a police station, multiple injuries binding him to a wheelchair, he is slowly recovering to mobility. Memory likewise unstable, he remembers nothing in the handful of weeks prior to the attack, and as a result is undergoing therapy with the hospital’s psychologist and psychiatrist. Receiving a major surprise one day, he is introduced to a woman named Susan who claims to have been his girlfriend in that blank space of memory. Her face triggering no memories, Grey places upon himself the task of getting to know her as well as he can in the hopes it will to revive the time. He gets much more than he asked for.
A sphere of story shot through from various angles—set jumping and spinning as each projectile passes through it—The Glamour is a highly successful plot construct. From the flashbacks of initially meeting Susan to Susan’s perspective, Grey’s time in the hospital to the events of the conclusion, Priest effortlessly turns the mundane into something that evokes a true head-twisting sense of disbelief; the reality one believes to be reality is twisted inside out. But the catch is, it’s twisted to the point it is right side out, again.
The transition making for not only a heady, engaging plot reveal, it likewise discloses Priest’s humanist agenda. The fallibility of the human mind, the games we play in our own heads, and the egoism ultimately at the root of the majority of perspectives and mindsets we develop toward the circumstances and events of existence anchor The Glamour. Priest challenging the reader with the manner in which the story is presented, he likewise challenges the reader to examine their own life, daring them to disagree that Richard and Susan’s circumstances, and their similar and opposing views, are not only possible, but in fact quite realistically presented no matter how juxtaposed they appear. The plot device twisting the reality of the story may be beyond the possible, but its manifestation in many ways accurately reflects our changing perceptions of the past.
In the end, The Glamour is fine-fine work from one of fantastika’s most subtle, head-twistingly humane writers. As is always the case with Priest, the plot is a finely tuned machine; the narrative is perfectly constructed to fit theme and plot, and the prose is deceivingly lucid and fluid. For as quotidian as Richard and Susan’s lives appear on the surface, there is much more to their worlds than one initially sees. Our brain not registering everything the eye encounters, it’s likewise true that the brain registers things the eye never had a chance to encounter, making one think twice about the novel, and then want to go back and read it again—perhaps the greatest compliment one can give to a novel.