May 10, 2012
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.
May 3, 2009
From time to time (well okay, three times in over two years), authors post comments on this blog. Most memorable was Christopher Priest’s appearance to correct my misattribution of his opinion on John Wyndham. One effect of that was to make me investigate Priest’s work; I’d heard of him, and had a vague idea that he wrote the sort of books that straddled sci-fi and mainstream fiction. But he didn’t seem to be much talked about – or even consistently in print – despite being in the Granta 1983 list, which leads like a roll call of those most prominent in British lit fic since then (Amis, Barnes, Barker, Boyd, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie and others). He has a fondness for definite article titles: The Glamour, The Extremes, The Separation, The Prestige (now a major motion picture). I opted for The Affirmation (1981), at random really, though I’ve since heard that it’s his best novel.
The Affirmation is a book about memory: if our essence is in our memories, and memories are malleable, what does that say about our experience of reality? It sounds like a schoolboy syllogism, but Priest makes fascinating play with it, and more importantly, convinces even against the reader’s wishes.
Peter Sinclair is a man recovering from multiple blows: bereavement, break-up, redundancy, homelessness. “I felt like a man who had been knocked down, then trodden on before he could get up.” He retreats to a tumbledown cottage owned by a friend of his father – whom he meets again in unexplained circumstances – and he undertakes to decorate the building and render it habitable. However he becomes more and more obsessed with recording his life, for reasons which (intentionally, I think) strain plausibility:
I perceived my past life as an unordered, uncontrolled bedlam of events. Nothing made sense, nothing was consistent with anything else. It seemed important to me that I should try to impose some kind of order on my memories. It never occurred to me to question why I should do this. It was just extremely important.
As he works on his story, he finds himself deviating from the facts, seeking “a higher, better form of truth”. “If the deeper truth could only be told by falsehood – in other words, through metaphor – then to achieve total truth I must create total falsehood.” He creates “an imaginary place and an imaginary life.”
Chapters then switch between his real life and his imagined life, where his name remains but everything else is changed: London becomes ‘Jethra’, England ‘Faiandland’. At this point my heart sank, as yours may too. However here is where Sinclair’s narrative – previously somewhat charmless – becomes positively disarming, becomes in fact Priest’s narrative. It is a book about its subject where the subject becomes, in part, the book itself.
In Jethra, Sinclair is a winner of the ‘Lotterie’, where the prize is an unusual and dubious form of privilege. This raises certain surface, ethical issues, but more knotty ones too of the nature and purpose of human life. During the course of his alternate existence, for the purposes of fulfilling the Lotterie’s requirements, Sinclair has to write his autobiography, which turns out to be the first chapters of the book – the real world ones – which we have already read. So far so tricksy, but Priest writes so convincingly that the reader becomes acutely aware of the difficulty in choosing between the ‘true stories’ on offer.
There were now two realities, and each explained the other.
What The Affirmation does is to emphasise that there is no reason to believe more in the fictional ‘real world’ of the book than in its fictional invented world. We are in any event, after all, reading a work of fiction, within whose confines by definition, anything is possible. (I was reminded of the Coen brothers and their bold statement at the beginning of Fargo, that everything that followed was true.) The Affirmation is, to quote Mary McCarthy on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem.” But it is so without being sterile or seeming like an act of intellectual masturbation. More impressive yet is Priest’s willingness to have the courage of his convictions, and end the book in the only appropriate way.
And if this seems like a sudden ending, you ain’t seen nothing yet.