The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest

I thought that this was a nice book, and that it was a distant book, and that I was disengaged from it, and then I found I had fallen into it like falling into quicksand, like being trapped in a gin that closes slowly in quicksand. I have finished it now, and I am honestly fighting the urge to flail around with my body, because it feels as though there are ants crawling on me, or something sharp inside me. It doesn’t literally feel like that, because I’m not mad, but it feels like something – not emotionally, it feels like something, it is a bodily sensation and those are the images that something provokes. Most of me doesn’t want to think about this book any more, because it is physically painful – or rather, it is painful, and it is painful in a physical, bodily, phenomenal, sensational way, although I feel no physical pain, because I’m not mad.

The book is a dream that turns into a nightmare, except that instead of turning into a nightmare, you suddenly look around in the dream and realise it has been a nightmare all along. And I say that even though nothing particularly nightmarish occurs. Rather, because emotionally, responsively, even physically, my experience of reading was an experience of a nightmare of being trapped, of being unable to escape.

I am not mad, but I have the capacity for madness latent within me, as an unrealised mode of action, as it were. We all do; many of us actually are mad, in quiet and hard-to-notice manners; i’m not, but I think I have more awareness of how I would be if I were mad, and how similar it is to not being mad, than most people; but I don’t know whether that is because I am actually closer to it, or just because I have paid more attention to myself than many other people pay to their own selves. In any case, this book holds a mirror up to that potential madness, even calls to that madness, and that is one reason why it is painful – why it is frightening, even. But it isn’t the only reason, I don’t think. And don’t worry, I’m not mad.

Apparently I’m not alone in this. Reading a few reviews, many others agree that this is a book that makes you question yourself, that strikes into the heart of you. It’s not just me being mad.

The Affirmation is one of Priest’s earlier works. It tells two stories. The first is the story of Peter Sinclair; living in London, he is made unemployed (amongst other misfortunes) and goes to the countryside to pull himself together, deciding that it will be therapeutic to write his autobiography, to set things straight in his mind. Before long, however, he realises that some truths about himself are best expressed through metaphor, and his autobiography becomes a novel: about Peter Sinclair, an inhabitant of Jethra in the feudal kingdom of Faiandland. The second story is the story of Peter Sinclair, an inhabitant of Jethra in the feudal kingdom of Faiandland; some years before he was made unemployed and retreated into the countryside to pull himself together by writing an autobiography; now, however, he has got over all that, and is embarking on a journey into the Dream Archipelago, to collect first prize in an unusual Lotterie.

This isn’t artistic bilgewater, irony for the sake of postmodernism. It’s an examination of madness so complete and so uncompromising that it is entirely possible that all the characters therein are wholly sane, and only the structure of the novel itself, its realities and its timelines, produces confusion and uncertainty. It’s like a part of the ground that has been folded up and turned into a hot air balloon – it is rooted in the world, it is made out of the world, but suddently you realise it has lifted off all by itself. It is unlike artistic bilgewater because it manages to be by itself – it is not a morass of things thrown in from the world, something anchored in conflicting ways. This is one of the rare books that has no anchor, no meeting point with the world, with life. You don’t know what I mean by that, but it’s possible that after you’ve read the book you might.

There is nothing groundbreaking in this novel intellectually.  Likewise, as the title suggests, Nietzschean ethics are considered quite prominently, but not in a way that will be novel to the philosophically literate; likewise the questions about the nature of personal identity. Novelists often come by coincidence to philosophical places, but so much of the meat of this novel is drawn directly from, and in the style of, philosophical thought-experiments, that I think Priest either is following a guide or else is a natural philosopher. This is a philosophical novel, of the kind analytic philosophy is not meant to have – all it lacks in that regard is depth, conviction, and originality.

The book is many things. It is a searing study of schizophrenia; it is a philosophical treatise; it is trip into an imaginary world; and it is an exploration of the nature of writing, and in particular the nature of being a novelist.

The genius of the book is not the intellectual content – not even how these questions interact with one another – but the delivery of that content. It is masterful – though as I said at the beginning, it is a slow and inorexable read rather than a thriller. The pace is slow, the objective obscure, and the viewpoint character(s?) are uninspiring and dull. By the end, however, that is the point – the dullness, the reality, of Peter Sinclair delivers more in the way of payoff than a more charismatic (and hence less immediate and normal) character could have provided.

The Affirmation is a more sincere book than The Prestige; it is more meaningul, and it is better constructed. It is not, however, written quite so well, I don’t think – the voice of Sinclair is somewhat less powerful in its ability to express much with little than are the voices of Borden or Angier – and stylistically it is much more within itself, achieving itself more fully but attempting less (while intellectually being far more ambitious than the later book:  The Prestige at times feels like a book written to flex muscles, while The Affirmation feels written for a purpose). If I have a concern about Priest from these two novels, it is that they are a bit too similar in tone and style and preoccupations.

I still want to throw something at a wall. It’s the only way to escape the circles of thinking, sometimes; and even that doesn’t work. Nothing can escape from The Affirmation, including the reader, even after the book is finished. It is a self-constraining circle of a novel, an event horizon. It will stay with me for a long time, but in part because it was inside me before I read it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything more useful or concrete, and for this all being such useless waffle. The subject matter of the book, if there is any matter to it (and this not a book where one can simply say what happens – even the paragraph I’ve said already about that is nonsense, both spoiling the book, or its first few chapters, and being made a lie of, a mockery of, by the book itself and its contents) is all spoiler, and is all impossible to speak about even if it weren’t. Speaking about it anchors it to the world, imposes a perspective. And it’s too slippery a novel to do that with.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Not an exciting book. The narrative voice is bland and boring, and very little happens. This is ameliorated by the mounting emotional response to the book, a tension and fear, like the moments in a conspiracy thriller just as you know you’re about to find out how big the conspiracy is. It engaged and captured me, but it didn’t run away with me.

Emotion: 4/5. The narrator is somewhat distant, and all the other characters are tertiary to him. However, his bland, direct, simple, open way of speaking about his life makes it impossible not to empathise with him, and more than empathise – or perhaps empathise for him, rather than with him. Beyond that: real and vivid feelings were provoked in me, of the sort of restlessness found in nightmares of pursuit or of imprisonment, feelings of childish helplessness. I do not give it full marks because its inexorable approach meant that the power didn’t kick in until near the end.

Thought: 5/5. The philosophical content is ground-breaking neither in hypothesis nor in solution, and although complexity is gestured at it is not made manifest. The plot is intriguing but is not a mystery. I don’t know how to explain why this gets full marks. Perhaps because talking about it – and this is only one manifestation of the process of assimilating the novel, of coming to terms with it – places my words, as you can see, at or beyond the limits of what are sayable. I don’t know if that counts as thought, but I’m going to say that it does. It makes my head spin, at least.

Beauty: 4/5. There is nothing wrong with the writing, but it is intentionally plain. There are beautiful moments and images, but the greatest beauty is the book itself. Considering the book, I feel the edges of the sublime impinging upon me, a power before which the mind and the tongue dissolve away. But too much of the actual content of the book is too plain and ordinary for full marks here.

Craft: 5/5. There are things about this book which are not perfect, but they are not the fault of the author, rather inherent flaws in the nature of the project. Priest has a mastery of prose, character, construction, and conceit. It is not, I think, as well written as The Prestige (encouragingly, as it was written more than a decade earlier), but it has a greater unity and coherence of form and concept. Priest is a brilliant novelist, and this is how you write a novel. Specifically, it is how you write this novel, and that may put you off if you don’t happen to like the novel he chose to write, but I can’t find any serious problem with how he wrote it.

Endearingness: 3/5. Even just thinking about it now, it compels me. It has a place in my affections, and I will return to it many times. But it’s also not a curl-up-in-front-of-the-fireplace read. It’s too painful for that, and too cold.

Originality: 4/5. To be honest, while it’s all distinctive, none of it – the plot, the structure, the conceits, the philosophy – is wholly unique. But it’s very well done!

Echo: 1/2. As this review says, it had a physical impact on me – not the usual deadness and deafness, but a frustration and fear and… thinking about it, perhaps it is a little like thinking about death. But it is an insidious book rather than an overwhelming one, I think, and I was left still able to walk in a straight line.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. People say this may be Priest’s masterpiece. I thought it wasn’t as good as The Prestige. I can see how people might disagree, though. This was more focused, smaller, more direct, more perfect, while The Prestige was more of a sprawler (despite its modest length), protean, chaotic. I think the later book wins out in my reviews because they are generalist reviews, and The Prestige ticks more boxes – there are angles from which The Affirmation is better, but there are more angles from which The Prestige is indisputably very good. I think the biggest thing missing from this novel was excitement – either through intention or inexperience, there wasn’t that brilliant ability to wring heart-pounding thrills from the simplest language and events that so impressed me in The Prestige. But I have no doubt that this book reaffirms Priest’s place as one of the great modern novelists, and makes me want to go and read his entire back-catalogue. I won’t, because there are so many other things to read. But right now I want to.

4 thoughts on “The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest

  1. Kelemta says:

    You say that the book is masterful; as reviews go, I think what you have written is masterful. The writing is evocative of the feelings you describe, and even without reading the book itself, I can feel that complicated, half-physical sensation. I don’t think I’ve read any review quite so evocative and mysterious, and from what you say as well as how you say it, I think that this is a book I’ll be looking out for.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Thank you! I’m flattered. I hope I haven’t oversold it – my emotive writing tends to tread the line between evocative and nonsensical, and uncertainty over how much has got through leads me to throw too much at the screen. And once I get something I want to describe, or an image I want to pursue, I can get a bit obsessive.
    Besides, books don’t exist until you review them, even if unconsciously – I don’t know how much of what I wrote is about the book and how much is about my idealised conception of the book, the conception being created as I write the review.
    Of course, that’s true of all reviews, but I’m too self-conscious not to feel a little guilty if somebody reads something on my say-so – even though recommendation is sort of the heart of the whole approach to reviewing I’ve taken on this blog.
    Wait, I’m waffling again.

  3. Kelemta says:

    Well, I would rather read a book based on an idealised conception from someone who has read it and been moved by it (if perhaps only by the conception, because that’s how books are) than on a generic blurb! I would think that most of the time it takes a good or at least absorbing/challenging/different book to inspire a strong reaction, even when sometimes the reaction doesn’t well reflect the book. From my own experience at least.

  4. Well crafted review. in a way, I can appreciate many readers finding the novel maddening, especially the ranting of the brittle Brit narrator.

    What I found so compelling is the way Peter discovers in the process of recounting his life, how critical is imagination. And then the recognition that he must start writing it all down. Peter reflects: “I wrote because of an inner need, and that need was to create a clearer vision of myself, and in writing I became what I wrote.”

    And the more Peter writes, the more he recognizes a simple recounting of facts is insufficient; what he needs is story. Thus, Peter’s writing moves from nonfiction to fiction, a fictional autobiography distilling a “higher truth.”

    Then when his sister takes him away to her house (I can imagine how boring that domestic life was for Peter!), he creates (at least that’s my take on the novel) the Island world in all its detail.

    Just listened to the audio of the novel a second time. For me, an astonishingly imaginative novel, even with morose Peter at its center.

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