July 2, 2013
I have admired Christopher Priest’s early novels The Affirmation and The Glamour – both published around 30 years ago – so after seeing high praise for this, his latest novel, I thought it might be a good idea to get up to date. It particularly interested me as it comes less than two years after his previous novel The Islanders, which was his first in a decade. Is Priest, who will be 70 years old this month, having a Roth-like late renaissance?
The Adjacent, at 420 pages, is almost twice as long as the other Priests I’ve read. I mention this up front because I think it may be a factor in my taking a little less pleasure from it than I did from the earlier novels. At the same time it is a book whose structure and nature requires it to investigate different stories. And for stories read worlds: the longest, and I think best, section of the book is set in the Dream Archipelago, which Priest has explored before in the book of that title, as well as in The Islanders and (to a lesser extent) The Affirmation. As I’ve read only one of these, it’s possible I would have found The Adjacent to be a richer experience with better knowledge.
One could argue, however, that a novel which requires prior knowledge for its effects is not really a standalone novel at all (which is what I thought after reading, cold, Pat Barker’s Booker-winning The Ghost Road). And even within The Adjacent, there is a sense that the book’s qualities lie less in the stories themselves than in the space around them and how the reader fills it. I had better explain what I mean.
The central story is of Tibor Tarent, a photographer in a war-torn Europe sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Climate change has made the UK vulnerable to hurricanes, euphemistically referred to as Temperate Storms, which are given the names of cultural figures (Edward Elgar, Federico Fellini, Graham Greene). Britain is also now a Muslim country, the IRGB – presumably Islamic Republic of Great Britain – though there is no development of this idea. Tarent’s wife Melanie was killed while they were in Turkey, the victim of a strange weapon which annihilates everything within a triangular area and leaves nothing but flattened black earth. A similar, much larger, weapon has recently destroyed Notting Hill, killing over a hundred thousand people. Tarent is brought back to Britain, for reasons unknown to him, where he forges a relationship – well, has sex – with a high-ranking defence official he calls Flo. Alternating with Tarent’s narrative are stories from the first and second world wars, from the present day (that is, the past in the novel’s main time scheme) and from the Dream Archipelago. Themes and settings of Priest’s earlier work recur: war in the air, illusionists, pairings. Each of these stories features a man and woman whose names and qualities chime with those of Tarent and Melanie: there is a sense that we are reading the same story, or the same relationship, from different angles.
Many writers see their characters’ journeys as something to get through so they can arrive where they need to be for the purposes of the plot. Martin Amis (a contemporary of Priest’s on the Granta 1983 Best of Young British Novelists list) wrote in The Information of the slog of getting characters from one location to another. With The Adjacent, the journeys are the point. They enable the reader to share the mystification of the characters. They give Priest the opportunity to fill in the details of each world, and also to make the surprises stand out because they are set against a bed of such dull routine. The surprises include the concept of adjacency, or more fully the Perturbative Adjacent Field, which is discovered by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Thijs Rietveld sometime in the 2020s or 2030s, and developed as a passive defensive weapon which “Will End War.”
Using what quantum physicists sometimes call annihilation operators, an adjacency field could be created to divert physical matter into a different, or adjacent, realm. An incoming missile [...] need not be intercepted or diverted or destroyed – it could be moved to an adjacent quantum dimension, so that to all intents and purposes it would cease to exist.
And the stories fall into place: we infer that someone has made a very non-passive weapon from the adjacency field, and that the various iterations of Tarent and Melanie are adjacent versions: the matter which the adjacency field removes may cease to exist “to all intents and purposes,” but it has to go somewhere. Aside from the pleasant sudoku-like mental exercise this generates – keeping track, flicking back – Priest expands it further, floating the suggestion that, for example, differing experiences of the same event are not necessarily matters of interpretation, but actually reflect different realities.
All this is nicely done, and Priest has a knack with chapter endings which open possibilities like a flower in the reader’s mind, just as he refuses further explanation: particularly strong are the scenes where Professor Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency field to a photographer, and where Tarent slowly understands what must be in a coffin he observes. However these are also part of the weakness of the book, which is the sense I had that the stories exist only to lead us to their ends, and I took little joy from the stories themselves or the way they were told, often at length. The delight was in the connections, the gaps, the anticipation. The intrigues of the book, for most of its length, are technical rather than emotional or psychological, which is odd given the central conceit, of human loss told from several different angles. For me, Tarent’s mourning of Melanie – or, in another strand, Krystyna’s of Tomasz – never felt like more than a prop hung from a strong science fictional idea. This is not helped by the manner in which women in the story generally succumb sexually to the men not long after meeting them, and the reiterative nature of the story, where it happens over and over, exacerbates the point. There is internal logic to support the easy relations each man and woman enjoys, if they have already known one another in a different dimension, but it still feels too perfunctory, like the occasional what-exactly-is-this-thing-you-call-love-Captain dialogue. (“I am a woman in good health with physical needs. Sometimes those needs become urgent.”) It seems apt for a book which, with its visions of war after war after war, seems very much a boys’ story.
And yet, just as my interest in The Adjacent was flagging, Priest turns to the Dream Archipelago in the book’s longest section, ‘Prachous’. This brings together all the central elements of the story which have gone before, refracted through imagination, and makes something enjoyable and impressive from them, as well as having the most interesting events. Perhaps this is Priest’s enthusiasm for the Dream Archipelago showing, or perhaps I should have had more faith in him before then. It sets up the coda to the novel beautifully, and brings together the worlds we have encountered with the sort of effortless unobtrusiveness which is not really effortless at all. I must admit that the finale still had less emotional punch than I think was intended, but I finished the book with renewed interest in Priest’s work, and a determination to revisit his Archipelago soon. Not least, it shows that in comparison with the later output of some of his Granta 1983 contemporaries, Priest is holding up the SF/slipstream end pretty well. Perhaps some trickery is involved.
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.