David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

I started rereading this book while in the middle of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s far more difficult War and War, without consciously realizing the similarities between the two. Both concern rather addled men and manuscripts to which they are too close. Because I haven’t quite figured out what to say about the Krasznahorkai book just yet (other than that you should read it), I thought I would write on Priest’s, and maybe it would help me focus on the other. (There is irony in their relation.)

Priest is about to gain some notoriety since his later work The Prestige is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s next film. But even in his own right, Priest has done some major, underrated work around the science-fiction genre, from the surreal Inverted World (the famous first line: “I had reached the age of 650 miles”) to the proto-VR A Dream of Wessex. His later work makes heavy use of unreliable narrators, though unlike Gene Wolfe, the unreliability generally becomes explicit and is structural rather than narrative: the lies and revelations of such form the underlying architecture of the book. Nowhere moreso than in The Affirmation. It is among the most relentlessly self-referential books I have ever read, and it puts the self-conscious metafictions of Barth and Coover to shame.

The setup is simple: spurred by his girlfriend’s suicide attempt, Peter Sinclair runs away from her and London, holing up in a country house to write–or rewrite–the story of his life. He quickly announces, however, that he is making changes to the facts, altering names and moving the setting to an imaginary city called Jethra, intended to substitute for London. And his Jethra counterpart has just won a nationwide lottery for which the prize is immortality, though at the price of total retrograde amnesia.

It becomes apparent quickly, though, that the book itself is nothing more and nothing less than the manuscript Sinclair describes himself as writing, and that Sinclair’s actual state is as unstable as the narrative of the book/manuscript. This results in a series of disorienting figure-ground reversals, where the figure is the supposed narrative and characters and the ground is the text and physical manuscript itself…or vice versa. Priest piles on complications until one has no choice but to read parallel asynchronous narratives into the single text of the novel. It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.

With such a book whose goal, like that of Dick’s best work, is a psychological confusion in the reader, it is difficult to read into the text itself because it is so focused on a particular effect. But it’s a marvelous achievement in story, even if the book, like Sinclair, ultimately folds in on itself and collapses into a black hole.

What I didn’t think about when I first read The Affirmation ten years ago was how amnesia and immortality analogize one another in it, and I was shocked to realize on rereading how I had buried that theme, albeit in very different form, in the novel I’m currently writing. Never underestimate the resources of the unconscious.


  1. I read “The Prestige” earlier this year on a train from Boston to NY & was so mesmerized by it that when I finished the woman across the aisle quite seriously asked me if she could buy it from me! She insisted on giving me the full cover price, I felt it was an exceptionally strange encounter! That’s the only book of his I’ve read, I liked it quite a bit only it reminded me too much of Robertson Davies.

  2. Gabriel Mandal

    31 May 2008 at 16:58

    i am 14 now and i read this book when i was 12, it was utterly fantastic,the way it was written was beautiful. i have also read the affirmation-it was very good but it can’t beat the prestige with it’s awe

  3. I finally got around to this after your dinner party recommendation. My aversion to the flat albeit clear prose that made my eyes glaze over in The Separation continues to be valid here; you can count without recourse to toes the total number of similes and metaphors enlivening descriptions. Of course, this is a personal preference, and here the plot kicked in faster to keep me going. The opposed feminine figures reminded me of Fowles’ The Magus, one of my favorites, and much more lifelike in its discursiveness. There is a point at which the recovering athanasian Peter realizes (in so much as anything he realizes in this book has any weight or finality) that the crossed-out anecdotes are the life of his piece: this has the ring of a wisdom outside the book’s scope. Consider the twisting, much more mysterious and three-dimensional torques, rather than reversals, of, say, Roth’s The Counterlife.

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