Christopher Priest is, as I've mentioned in another view the British middle class answer to Philip K. Dick. His work deals with the very notion of self, how we form our identities and how fragile those identities might be, wrapped into a metafictional narrative that acknowledges its own artifice at the very same moment that it celebrates it.
Like the Glamour, a story about the dissipation of identity and surety, the Affirmation takes its narrator, Peter Sinclair and then deconstructs him, strips away his identity and rebuilds it to the point where neither the narrator nor the reader knows for sure who this man is and what reality he exists in.
Peter has some kind of dissociative episode after losing his job and breaking up with his girlfriend. His life is bereft of meaning, so he tries to give it one; first by writing his life out, then by turning that life into a story. Recognising that there is no meaning to life, he begins to fictionalise his life, creating analogues for London, his girlfriend, his family, but finding that the fiction does not directly map onto reality, he finds the edges blurring between one and the other. The fiction bleeds into reality and perceptions are flipped.
The prose is completely gripping. Sinclair could come across as a particularly whiny member of the chattering classes, but his predicament and imagination make up for this. Priest is able to compelling create worlds to the point where you're not sure which is the more real and has things to say about escapism and real life along the way.
The Affirmation is an affirmation of life, just as it is an affirmation of the power of fiction. It is a blueprint for our postmodern lives, and needs to be read.
on 5 May 2006
Peter Sinclair retreats to a cottage in the hills in an effort to escape and recover from the misfortune that has plagued him for the last few months. Whilst there he decides to write an account of his life in an effort to define himself. Frustrated that a simple re-telling of events is not sufficient he chooses instead to construct a metaphorical chronicle - a "higher truth" - set in the sun-soaked Dream Archipelago, where anything is possible and nothing is quite what it seems. As his work progresses, Sinclair finds metaphor and reality leaking into each other - undermining perceptions of self and the world about him.
A masterful examination of our ideas about memory and identity woven into a dizzyingly sophisticated narrative. The Affirmation is also an intriguing exploration of the writing process. The ending to this haunting tale of loneliness and despair will hit you in the face like a lump hammer.
I don't think this book will suit everyone, but I found myself mesmerised by the intensity and power of the prose. It is literary and polished, and it goes in a series of curious directions, defying logic by folding back upon itself as the tortuous turns of the plot dictates. I found myself pulled into the slipstream of hypnotic prose, worried about the state of mind of the narrator, even as he took further steps away from a safe, normal, or ordinary existence. There are moments when one of the worlds he inhabits seem to bleed into another. Curiously enough this doesn't worry the protagonist - he can keep going until things stabilise around him. This book produces ideas, it plays with them, and then leaves the reader to sort it out for herself. What is it about?
Well, that's the thing. It's partly about the nature of the self, the conclusion we come to when we ask ourselves, "who am I?" The narrator, Peter, at one point, is sure only of his age and his name, but he also believes that, during the course of his wandering an other-worldly island archipelago he has entered a lottery, which confers immortality upon the winner - and he has won. It means he has to give up his current memories and have them re-conferred once all his physical attributes have been washed clean in order that he can live forever. This process is only complicated by Peter, who insists that he has already written his life-story and he doesn't have to fill in the obligatory forms. He merges in and out of two or perhaps more than two worlds and is frequently in a parallel world where he is wandering the limitless archipelago with a beautiful young companion called Siri. When he re-emerges into a more conventional existence Siri does too, but now he has to confront his old life as the lover of Grazia, who has tried to kill herself in the past and tries again. He feels that it is his fault insofar as he has re-emerged into this world too soon (though I'm not clear whether he thinks of it as `reality', all one can go by is the use of locations in London as opposed to differently named islands and other places).
I will definitely want to read this again, it has a most provoking and teasing sort of appeal and I don't think I've got to the bottom of it with just one attempt.
The Affirmation is the eighth novel by British SF author Christopher Priest, originally published in 1981. As with his later novels The Prestige and moreso The Separation, The Affirmation is a book about identity, truth, perception and perspective which rewards multiple readings and is open to many interpretations of what is happening.
A 29-year-old man named Peter Sinclair is tormented by the death of his father, an unhappy relationship with a woman named Gracia and the loss of his job in London. Offered an opportunity to fix up the dilapidated country house of a friend of his late father's, he jumps at the chance. Whilst performing this job he becomes obsessed with the idea of writing his autobiography and defining his life through words. But, anxious to protect the identities of real people, he changes their names, then the names of the places they live, then the very nature of the world they exist in.
But that may be a lie.
A 31-year-old man named Peter Sinclair is living in the city of Jethra, part of the great nation of Faiandland. Unexpectedly, he wins the Lotterie-Collago. The prize is a course of treatment given on the distant southern island of Collago, which grants the recipient immortality but only at the price of total amnesia. On his way through the islands he meets and falls in love with a woman named Seri, but is occasionally haunted by thoughts of a manuscript he wrote two years ago, the story of his life with some of the names and places changed.
That may also be a lie.
The Affirmation utterly defies any attempt to summarise it. It is a twisting and at times bewildering novel that moves between at least three different levels of reality, and each of those is open to multiple interpretations. Peter is really a native of a different, although similar, world and our planet and everything on it is a figment of his imagination. Peter is really a Londoner suffering a total mental collapse in the wake of personal tragedy. He is suffering from amnesia, or schizophrenia, or an acute solipsist, or all three. The manuscripts are real, or only exist in his head. The manuscript he is writing is the actual novel itself, forming a Mobius strip of narrative and causality that loops back in on itself: when you reach the end of the novel, which literally finishes in mid-sentence, you can go back to the start and re-read it as its own sequel, with greater understanding.
Priest does his usual thing here of using a clean, easily readable prose style which lures the reader into a false sense of security until the story's second level of interpretation and reality kicks in, leaving the reader confused as to what is happening. And just when you adjust for that, something else happens that hints at a grander but stranger truth yet. The Affirmation is a puzzle, but not necessarily a puzzle with a single solution, which makes it a fiendishly addictive read.
The Affirmation (*****) is one of the most original and mind-blowing books I have read, somehow even eclipsing The Separation in what it asks from the reader and the possible answers it gives out. The novel is available in the UK from Gollancz and in the USA from Pocket Books. The latter is out of print, but Amazon.com still has some copies available.
I have just reread The Affirmation after about 18 years. It was not quite as I remembered it. To quote from the book "Memory is a flawed medium".
What is it about? Here is my attempt at an improved synopsis:
Peter Sinclair has a run of bad luck - his father dies, he is made redundant, he is served notice to quit his flat, and he falls out with the girl he loves. A family friend lends him a country cottage in return for some renovation and decorating. He moves into the cottage and starts to brood on what he left behind and tries to remember everything that has happened to him in his life so that he can make some sense of it. He realises that he has to write it all down. He finds a typewriter and starts enthusiastically writing all his memories but realises that he is constrained by having to stick to literal truth. He constantly rewrites, using his imagination to seek a higher truth about his life. A large part of the novel is devoted the story of his alter ego but the dividing line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred.
When I was reading the early part of the book I found it easy to follow and it seemed so real that I suspected that Christopher Priest was describing events from his life. Then the fantasy element is introduced with a sub-story set in the Dream Archipelago. After I finished reading the book I was still thinking about it, wondering how much I had understood, what the Dream Archipelago meant, what was the "higher truth", what was "The Affirmation". It is like one of films with that you need to watch it again straight away to try to unravel its mysteries.
Some other related facts:
An Infinite Summer was published in 1979 and included three Dream Archipelago stories
The Affirmation as published in 1981
The Dream Archipelago was published in 1999 which included the three Dream Archipelago stories from An Infinite Summer plus three more.
How good is it? I suspect books are like bottles of wine - it is not just the wine, it is the occasion, what mood you are in, so many different factors. At worst it is a pretty good novel at best it is brilliant.
Having enjoyed the cleverly crafted 'Inverted world' from the SF Masterworks series also by Priest, I approached 'The Affirmation' with anticipation.
This story challenges perception and cleverly alters our view of the narrator, Peter Sinclair, and the events he describes as we gradually learn more about him. Sinclair suffers a number of traumatic events such as the loss of his job, the death of his father and the ending of a relationship, and he sets out to make sense of his life and discover who he really is. He embarks upon an autobiography but during this journey decides to discover himself by projecting himself into an alternative reality into which he becomes entangled and descends into psychosis where he is incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.
The novel is well-written, certainly draws the reader in and cleverly reveals the duality in Sinclair's psychology. As such it is a well put together story that challenges the imagination. However I was left wondering at the conclusion why it is included in an SF Masterworks series. This is not a criticism of the novel itself, but for me it is a real stretch of the genre definition to be classified as SF.
Priest's works often seems to defy review because stories like this are so much a matter of taste. Personally I love it when a seemingly mundane situation gets mixed up with the fantastic. The Affirmation like the Glamour, and The Separation features a narrator who is incapable of separating reality from the imagined to such an extent that the reader struggles to differentiate too. Very early on in the novel although Peter is obviously struggling to cope, the sudden arrival of his sister results in him confessing what to him seems such a minor point yet to the reader completely pulls the rug from under our feet and makes everything we read from that point on potentially unreliable. The Affirmation is certainly one of CPs finest books with a main character who is totally lost drifting in and out of his dream world and most importantly taking us with him. Whilst there, is he working through his problems or just escaping? Immortality through an artist's work is a familiar concept and here the character achieves his immortality by reducing himself to the contents of his cyclical manuscript.
on 2 April 2006
02 April 2006 12:59 pm
Earlier this mornng, I finished reading the 1981 novel by Christopher Priest, "The Affirmation." I'm sure I read this before, around the time of first publication, or at least soon after. I recall this as being one of the best books I'd read in a long time, perhaps longer. Now,on re-reading, I believe this to be far better, even a revolutionary novel, one that has broken boundaries, norms, expectations and many previous efforts in the field. Also, it should be said, this profound work should not be labelled 'Science Fiction', nor even 'Fantasy' - it is both a bigger and more encompassing work than this boxy pigeon-holing could imagine. Nor should it be described as a mainstream work, which implies an agreed way, or tried-and-tested particular method or modus operandi. The only notions that may be given and accepted is that the novel is written in the first person, runs for 200 pages and is enclosed and offered as a printed book. After that, the parameters can and will become as large, or as small as the reader's mind. It's a personal journey, so be open and do forget Roland Barthes' notion of 'The Death of the Author', your reading this work may well lead to the disappearance of the reader. In 1966, a major novel was published with an ambiguous conclusion. This approach by John Fowles, in 'The Magus' (and more famously later, in 'The French Lieutenants' Woman'), seemed to herald a more imaginative, yet realistic, approach to the writer dealing with the disparity between story, fiction, neatness, life and endings.
In 'The Affirmation,' Christopher Priest adroitly provides no real ending at all, for the story of Peter Sinclair, the narrator, continues, like ouroborus, the snake with its tail in its mouth, to run on, back to its beginning, staying suspended in the mind for days, weeks (years?) after a reading.The reader, once drawn into the narrator's tale, will take everything as having really occurred, just as in most well-written stories. But just when we reach the point where Peter begins to type out his own life-story, and we believe that his memory is correctly describing events, characters and places, we begin to doubt, ponder, question. During this process the writer inhabits a white room, types on sheets of blank white paper, and all appears well - the truth is told - until other characters attempt to read his work. Slowly, we begin to wonder who/what is real, what is imagination, how far reality and dream inter-penetrate, where/what is the interface - how does one level of existence affect and influence another? This is not only a superb study of a person trying to understand who he really is,in relation to self and others, and what he should be and do, but also shows a mind in turmoil, treading water but trying to find dry land, heading towards a space that is both enclosed and limitless, image and stone reality. Priest/Sinclair has successfully depicts a schizoid state of utter clarity coupled with maximum confusion. He knows what is true and real at every step...then turns another corner, as do the readers... At one point, re-reading his manuscript, Peter Sinclair says there are three levels of the text: the first is the written words, the second is the pencilled alterations and deletions and the third level is what was not written - ie, the spaces, allusions, and deliberate omissions. This is the space that the reader may fill in, with his or her own diaries, dreams, descriptions of the real, word-paintings of the imagined, worries, hopes for the future, memories of past deeds and misdeeds. Read this book once, then let it read you.
on 2 March 1999
Christopher Priest is one of the most underrated authors in the world today. This book is just amazing. To say anything about the plot would be to give the game away. Suffice to say, it's the only book you will read that can be re-read as its own sequel.
on 23 September 2013
i am still confused by this book! I finished it 2 weeks ago and am still wondering if I fully understood what happened - although I think this is the point of the cyclic way the book is written.
I loved the imagination used in this book and the way is moves so fluidly. I think it would be a great book for a book club as would inspire a lot of discussion. I would recommend it....although it may frustrate you :)