May 10, 2012
Christopher Priest: The Glamour
Christopher Priest landed in the literary spotlight recently when he had a go at the judges of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, and some of the shortlisted books, including those by China Miéville (“he does not work hard enough”), Charles Stross (“[an] appalling and incapable piece of juvenile work”) and Greg Bear (“The important words are in italics. Have we lived and fought in vain?”). In the event, the award was won by Jane Rogers for The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which for Priest was “the only [book on the shortlist] that I think is something we can be proud of.” (It was also longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize. Is this the first time this has happened?) But what interested me most in Priest’s essay was his assessment of his own work, which has since been removed from the piece as it sat alongside much-criticised remarks about a thriller writer. Priest said that this writer is “firmly embedded in [his] genre and digging deeper with every passing day, while I have spent the last forty years or so trying to understand and make sense of the orthodoxies that clearly define a genre but also dangerously undermine it.” This made me hungry to revisit him, after I was so pleased and impressed by his novel The Affirmation.
The Glamour (1984) is the novel Priest published after The Affirmation, and it is a development of some of the ideas and themes in that book. It has narrative switches and stories within stories; like The Affirmation it is a work of slipstream fiction, where two worlds – two genres – rub shoulders and even merge. It is also – and here is where Priest’s assertion of genre exploration makes sense – a book which tests and teases the reader of mainstream fiction. It would not be surprising if it was inspired in part by Anna Kavan’s Ice (to which Priest has written a foreword).
Like Ice – like The Affirmation – The Glamour begins with a cool, affectless narrative, a symptom of the iron grip of control which Priest exerts over the reader. It is so pleasing to submit to that control that it would be unfair to reveal what happens for most of the book. (I speak as someone who is appalled that the midway revelation in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is now routinely disclosed in summary introductions to the book, even though the book isn’t really about that subject matter.) So, what can I reasonably tell you that The Glamour is about?
It is about a man, Richard Grey, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a car bomb, and has lost his memory. That old chestnut! But this is framed within an opening chapter where a first person narrator wonders “if anything might have happened to make me become what I am.” It might be a question asked commonly by amnesiacs (Heller’s Bob Slocum wanted to know too), but even here on the first page – in the first sentence – Priest is laying traps for the presumptuous reader. Grey can remember his childhood – “but then there was a gap.” At the hospital where he is recovering from his trauma, he is introduced to a woman, Susan, who claims to be his girlfriend. Grey is confused but interested – “I don’t remember you, but nevertheless feel I know you. It’s the first real feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.” Interest turns to excitement as he realises that “she was a witness to the fact of himself. She remembered him when he did not.” These are ideal ingredients for Grey to allow his memory to fill in the gaps – but is the filler real or invented?
The narrative curves off into what appear to be Grey’s memories of how he first met Susan (whom he now calls Sue), and takes several further switchbacks. The gaps are where the reader does the work – just like Grey, we fill in what might make sense, only to find ourselves questioning it as more appears to be revealed. Priest maintains a degree of ambiguity almost to the end of the story, which is where the tests and teases come in. The reader who is happy chained to largely mainstream fiction – that’s me – may rebel at the slipstream elements as they appear. But Priest – a seductive teller, a respectful host – never takes the reader too far too soon. In fact it is the very realist and recognisable setting – England, early 1980s – which has drawn the reader in, that makes the shifts and turns so powerful and unsettling. They would not have the same force arising in one of those other-world novels in this year’s Clarke shortlist.
The title is worth mentioning at this point. Glamour has an odd ring to it, not helped by the cover of my edition, which resembles a mid-range fragrance advert, but presumably almost thirty years ago, when the book was published, glamour was a less debased word, not redolent as it is now of the vapidity of celebrity culture. Halfway through the book, we learn that the meaning even then was corrupted, and that it is an old Scottish word: “in the original sense a ‘glammer’ was a spell, an enchantment.” But I am in danger of giving too much away.
When Grey is relating his past with Sue, it has an air of double fantasy, both of male desires fulfilled easily (she enters into a sexual relationship with him quickly and willingly) and of the consolations of misery (as he wallows in the fear of losing her to her other lover, the mysterious Niall). The setting reflects his inner turmoil, and there are more odd gaps, highlighting the insistent questions the narrative poses: how real is all this? Whose story is it? And is it one story, two, or more? The Glamour starts as a story about a man losing his memory, and becomes a story of a woman trapped in, or addicted to, an abusive relationship. Priest, for the most part, permits the reader to view the slipstream elements literally or allegorically, so they enhance the human story. The role that Grey, and Susan, and Niall, occupy is of varying degrees of divergence from society: they represent the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, those living between two worlds, simultaneously freed and trapped.
The two worlds are not only in the novel but form the structure of the novel. The experience of being in one narrative world is so immersive that the reader tends to forget about the other one: primacy shifts as the story proceeds. It is intensely atmospheric and frankly gripping in the air of expectation it creates: the tension between the stories means that reader has to work to simultaneously retain hold of what has happened and move on through the turns of the story. All this is apt since, as one character observes, “the urge to rewrite ourselves as real-seeming fictions is present in us all. In the glamour of our wishes we hope that our real selves will not be visible.” The characters’ real selves are in flux through the story, and Priest’s control seems to slip a little until the reader gets to the end; when you realise that he was several steps ahead all along.