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.
as he wallows in the fear of losing her to her other lover, the mysterious Niall
That must be one of the very few books with a character who shares my name.
re: the Clarke and the Booker, it’s not the first overlap. The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker and won the first Clarke; Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go were shortlisted for both; and there are other authors who have been shortlisted for both awards at different times (notably Amitav Ghosh and Sarah Hall).
I discovered Priest 20 years ago, after a publisher’s rep gave me a copy of The Quiet Woman, which I think is one of the most underrated novels of the last three decades. I read The Glamour next and found it increasingly frustrating, but utterly compelling.
Both novels went in and out of print and I seized every opportunity I could to promote them in the bookshops I managed, but the sales were always disappointing. They seemed to be too ‘out there’ for most mainstream fiction readers (I remember experiencing similar problems with Rupert Thomson) whilst the jackets tended to put off the sci-fi fans.
The current jacket for The Glamour is pretty awful, but at least the novel’s back in print.
I’ve only read The Prestige by Priest, which I loved. I have several others including The Glamour on the shelf and have been meaning to read them for ages, and after clicking through to his fascinating piece on the Clarke awards I’ll definitely return to him sooner rather than later. In general I love mainstream novels that venture into the fantastic in all its forms.
I didn’t get on with the Clarke winner The Testament of Jessie Lamb though – by telling the story totally through the teenaged girl, it was missing out on everything outside that I was crying out to know, something Priest acknowledged.
Thank you for reminding me of the pleasure I had from this novel which I read many years ago. I hadn’t heard of Christopher Priest and thus had no expectations. I remember being amazed at his audacity. I was completely wrongfooted by his narrative expecting one kind of novel and then discovering I was reading something completely different. Since then I’ve read other novels by him and The Prestige is, I think his best. The film was good but the quite exceptionally creepy ending to the novel is even better.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed and frustrated by a novel as I was by The Glamour.
I bought it after it appeared on the Guardian’s all-time top 1,000 best ever books you absolutely must read before you ever die.
While I enjoyed the craft of the writing in the opening chapters – the bit set exclusively in the hospital – as soon we got to what ‘glamour’ actually was, the whole thing collapsed for me. I just couldn’t buy into any of it: the characters, the narrative. And, come the final reveal, I switched from disappointment to outright anger.
I felt so cheated, I remember actually shouting ‘you’ve got to be f*cking kidding me!’ and throwing the book to the floor.
Other than The End of Mr Y – which is just the worse-written and stupidest book I’ve ever read – I can’t think of any novel that has provoked such a strong negative and lasting reaction in me as The Glamour.
Without wanting give anything away, can anyone who liked it explain to me their reaction to how things played out?
Did you not struggle with what you were asked to believe throughout the book?
Ned Barry, you have my sympathy, though slightly reversed. I found the opening chapters unbelievable, and slightly irritating, but didn’t mind the ‘glamour’ sections. I was something of a sucker to see how this old sf chestnut would be handled.
I probably read it at quite a superficial level though and didn’t try to engage particularly with ideas around how one can become submerged within one’s life. If indeed the author was trying to draw us to that.
The ending seemed very forced.
Your thoughts on The Glamour made me want to re-read it, as did recently having finished Priest’s latest novel The Islanders. It continues to show him challenging orthodoxies. His previous work, The Separation, is also worth a look. (He clearly likes the definite article!) I’ve always thought him a shamefully under-rated writer.
Nice review John, though no surprise there.
Interesting comment from Ned. I’d be curious to see your thoughts. It’s always good when there’s strong feeling about a book, particularly differing strong feeling which tends to bring out different aspects.
With respect to the title, growing up with folklore and D&D and indeed SF and fantasy generally meant it was never ambiguous to me. I was actually quite surprised to see it needed explanation, though it makes sense now I think of it that someone without a background in SF/fantasy or folklore probably wouldn’t know the old meaning. When this was published Priest hadn’t I think attained his wider literary cred (though I could be wrong on that). I suspect to the majority of his readers the title was an immediate sign that there would be something untrustworthy within, a seeming, and that what the reader viewed could not necessarily be relied upon.
Definitely an under-rated writer.
On the Clarke, it’s the only SF award I follow. The reason I do is because it’s not afraid of considering literary merit as a relevant prize criterion, or of giving the award to books that many might not even recognise as SF (which are of course therefore often precisely the books which are helping to ensure that SF continues to remain relevant). It’s a good prize, most years (and few prizes, maybe none, manage better than most years).