14 November 2007

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.

We often pretend to be objective about books when writing about them, but such objectivity is obviously a lie, and I would be foolish to continue that lie when writing about a book that has affected me in such a particular way as The Affirmation has. I am not so much going to describe what I think the book will do to you as what it did to me.

What it does to you ... well, for that you're on your own.

A saying of Leonard's comes into my head in this season of complete inanity and boredom. "Things have gone wrong somehow." It was the night C. killed herself. We were walking along that silent blue street with the scaffolding. I saw all the violence and unreason crossing in the air: ourselves small; a tumult outside: something terrifying: unreason -- shall I make a book out of it? It would be a way of bringing order and speed again into my world.
--Virginia Woolf
diary, 25 May 1932

An aside: I read The Affirmation at a time when writing had become, in various ways, difficult for me. First and generally, there was the lack of time. My life had changed. I had less time than ever before for myself, partly because I had changed jobs and learning a new job is immensely time-consuming and exhausting, and partly because I had changed where I lived, and learning a new life is equally time-consuming and exhausting.

While the volume of all of my writing and reading had decreased substantially, my writing of fiction had nearly stopped. I was used to dry spells -- fiction does not come naturally to me, and that is one reason I get more pleasure from completing a new story than from anything else -- but a year and a half without finishing a single new story, without ever writing more than a page of fiction that seemed even remotely promising -- this was a new experience. When I finally finished a very short story, I hoped it would lead to an outpouring of other stories: pent-up, gestated, waiting in the wings. It did not.

There are, I'm sure, many reasons for my inability to continue writing fiction, the form that has until now been the most constant in my life, the form that offers the greatest challenges. The reason that I've found most interesting, though, and the one that offers at least some hope of breaking through the wall is this: I felt that I had reached a point where if I continued to tell the sorts of stories I told, I would repeat myself. Almost all of the fiction I could stand for the general public to see found a publisher of some sort. Some of it gained attention and praise, some of it was criticized, some of it was misunderstood, some of it was ignored. But it was out there. Much of what I had written ever since childhood had been variations on a limited set of themes; I made one variation after another in an attempt to get it right, to find the best form. And then I reached a limit. I could no longer envision other forms -- I'd found ones that worked for me, I'd done my best with them, I'd reached an end where I could not imagine any more progress, only reiteration, and I felt no passion for that. To write again, I would need to find new material or new forms or, preferably, both. (No, I have not found either yet. I have seen glimpses, though.)

We treat the past as real insofar as present existence has been conditioned or generated by it. The more indirect the causal derivation of the present from a particular past becomes, the weaker the past becomes, the more it sinks toward a dead past.
--J.M. Coetzee,
"Time, Tense, and Aspect in Kafka's 'The Burrow'"
in Doubling the Point

The Affirmation
begins with the narrator, Peter Sinclair, asserting the things he says he knows for sure: His name, the fact that he is English, and his age (29 years old). Except: "Already there is an uncertainty, and my sureness recedes. Age is variable; I am no longer twenty-nine."

I was prepared for the uncertainty. I desired it. I had read (and reviewed) the novel Christopher Priest wrote after The Affirmation, The Glamour, and the uncertainties at its core had provided, I thought, a thrilling reading experience: the experience of never being on solid narrative ground. (The straightforward tone and style made this experience more profound than the tricks of many more obviously "experimental" novels ever had for me.) I had also read Priest's more recent (and most famous) novel, The Prestige, which is often masterful, but nonetheless disappointed me with what felt like a tidy resolution. The plot trumped the metaphysics, and I'll always prefer metaphysics to plot. The Affirmation, I thought from reading various comments about it, would be closer to the purity of The Glamour.

The Affirmation, it turns out, is even more pure on a meta(-physical)(-fictional) level than The Glamour, and this time its thrills were more unsettling to me. Peter Sinclair, it turns out, is writing a manuscript in an attempt to figure himself out. He has lost his girlfriend and his job, and he settles down to work at a cottage owned by his aunt and uncle, who have asked him to fix the place up a bit.

All seems fine until suddenly we discover that Peter's version of reality is not shared by other characters, and the moment this becomes clear -- when his sister offers a very different view of his existence than he has given us so far -- was, for me, so jolting I set the book down for a week.

For some reason or another, I had bought into Peter's version of events so completely that to have that version undermined was disturbing to me, and I had to get distance from the book. It was a pleasurable sort of disturbance mostly, and one that led me to be even more impressed with what Christopher Priest had wrought than I'd been before, because it's rare that a novel ever tricks me quite so fully, particularly when I know the author's proclivities and have even sought out the book for just this sort of trick. I had been expecting the narrator to be unreliable, but I hadn't expected him to be unreliable in this particular way.

"Give it back to me," I said at last. "I don't want you to read any more."

"I've got to," she said. "I've got to understand."

But time passed and not much was clear to her. She started asking me questions:

"Who is Felicity?"

"What are the Beatles?"

"Where is Manchester, Sheffield, Piraeus?"

"What is England, and which island is it on?"

"Who is Gracia, and why has she tried to kill herself?"

--The Affirmation

After the early shock, the rest of the novel was, in some ways, a let-down, because nothing in the rest of it would be as powerfully unsettling for me. Indeed, some parts would prove to be simply boring. Like The Glamour, the writing is flat and straightforward, which is often a strength (for misdirection, at least, since the sentences are so generally bland that they can not call attention to themselves) and sometimes a weakness (because sometimes blandness is just bland).

The last pages of The Affirmation do not provide the sort of shock the last pages of The Glamour do, because the kind of recontextualization of the narrative that these pages offer is easy enough to predict. What makes The Affirmation powerful is not its surprises, which are mostly superficial, but rather its unified uncertainty. It is a novel that is nothing other than itself; it is a hermetic structure. We cannot know what is "real" except the words that are provided for us. The book seems to reference a recognizable reality, but then it undermines that reference by positing other realities, and never settles obviously for one or the other. Everything could be a delusion. Everything is a delusion: the delusion that is fiction. We cannot choose what is true or what is imagined, because both are presented with the same techniques.

If the pages had become unworded, if the story was now untold, then it meant I could start again.

--The Affirmation

Blankness. Emptiness. Possibility. Nothing.

End? Beginning? Real? Unreal?

There's no way to know. Peter tells a story about seeing a room differently from his sister. But Peter tells many stories. He tells stories about islands we have never heard of and distant wars we didn't know existed. He tells stories, too, about places whose names we recognize and events we know happened in the world we think we live in, the past we call real, the one that created our present.

Peter tells stories so that he may try to find himself, find some truth, remember something that was somehow lost, bring life to the dead past. He tries again and again. The something remains lost, the past stays dead.

He does not know who he is. Nor do we. All we have are words.