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“As long as I could remember myself, then I existed. When I woke up in the mornings the first thing I’d do is think back to what I’d done just before going to bed. If the continuity was still there, I still existed. And I think it works the other way … there’s a space ahead that I can anticipate. It’s like a balance. I discovered that memory was like a psychic force behind me, and therefore there must be a kind of life force spreading out in front. The human mind, consciousness, exists at the center. While I can remember, I am defined.”
At the start of The Affirmation, Peter Sinclair has lost everything. His father has just passed away. He’s out of a job and an apartment. He’s reeling from a relationship that ended badly. By any definition, Peter has hit rock-bottom. His emotional state of mind is a wasteland. Rightfully so, Peter decides he needs a change of scenery to heal and to pick up the pieces. He volunteers to help fix up a friend’s cottage in the country.
The solitude that Peter finds in this remote ramshackle abode moves him to start thinking about his life, but he finds that recalling the details and emotional truths is tricky business. So, he decides to write out his autobiography as the best way to regain his balance, his sense of self. He’s journaling. He’s exorcising the demons. But this therapeutic venture soon morphs into a major writing project; it’s no longer a simple memoir of sorts. And then, suddenly, it’s no longer nonfiction.
Peter starts mixing fact and fiction, writing a fictional autobiography that conveys his personal history in a less than documentarian fashion, aiming instead for the more noble goal of reaching and attaining a “higher truth” about himself.
In this alternate world, Peter creates an alter ego that bears his identity and name but everything else in and about this world is different—including the people and setting. The people have different names and they live in an imaginary world dominated by the Archipelago, a chain of different islands and island groupings.
In the imaginary world, Peter has just won the lottery of a lifetime: he will undergo a medical procedure that will essentially give him immortality. The only catch, he discovers, is that he will lose all his memories. The price for perpetual life: the utter effacement of his current life.
Half-way through the book, as we travel with Peter from island to island, as he makes his way to the clinic by boat, it seems obvious that we’re reading some part of the manuscript that Peter from the real world has been writing all along—the one he has been working on in the country cottage. But Priest throws us for a loop. Eventually we discover that the Peter in the so-called imaginary world has also been writing his autobiography, a manuscript he’s been carrying around in a satchel on his travels.
The rest of the novel dances between these two shifting realities and we’re left squirming, trying to parse out which reality is really the truth—and which is the “higher truth.” What’s intentionally complicating is that Priest gives us both men from a first-person point of view, so there really isn’t any way for us to objectively determine which is the real world and which is the imagined one. We could be dealing with just a single unreliable narrator—or both. Sure, the real world is full of names and places that are familiar to us; that’s a favorable clue. But other than that, either world could have the real Peter. Either world could be the one written down in the fictionalized autobiography.
By the last quarter of the book, the real-world Peter becomes more and more suspect and untrustworthy. For one, we begin to doubt the soundness of his state of mind. Priest starts highlighting crack after crack of Peter’s account as it is called into question by the people around him, particularly his ex-girlfriend.
* SPOILER AHEAD: We discover that the manuscript that real Peter has been supposedly working on is completely non-existent. His ex-girlfriend, Gracia, calls him out on it, pointing out the stack of blank pages. Peter sees his story there—the typed words, the markups in ink and pencil. To him, it’s all real, but to others—at least to his ex—there’s nothing there. We can believe Gracia, but she also has her own history of mental instability. Priest doesn’t make it easy for the reader to draw a clean conclusion. *
There are some other standout clues. * SPOILER AHEAD: If we recall, earlier in the cottage scene, Peter’s writing reverie is interrupted by his sister’s unexpected visit. In that agonizing moment, Peter recalls how he was stopped mid-sentence. He desperately tried to return to that moment but could never quite find the right words to finish… Peter eventually gives up trying to find closure to that moment, content that he’d never capture it. At the end of the novel, Peter from the imaginary world escapes the islands and seeks to return to the real world. He discovers his own autobiography that he’s been writing and he becomes convinced that the world in those pages is the real world. *
As the two worlds collide, both Peters become blurred. And then Christopher Priest pulls off a brilliant meta-trick and stops the book in the middle of a sentence—our experience mimicking Peter’s interrupted experience in the cottage.
Some readers have called The Affirmation an ouroboros of a novel, and I couldn’t agree more. There are elements in both the ‘realities’ that start to blur into each other, just like the snake devouring its own tail.
What’s doubly stunning and refreshing about The Affirmation is that Priest manages to tell a fantastical story with such plainspoken writing. Reading this book feels almost like hypnosis, or being lulled and then shocked awake. It made me think of wandering down a perfectly normal and pedestrian street and then having that street change into something sinister and magical with something as mundane as the passing of some clouds over the sun. Shadows deepening, dark corners revealing themselves. The only other contemporary writers I know who do this with the same panache are Haruki Murakami and Paul Auster. It’s amazing how much depth and complexity an author can pack in such basic, tonally flat prose. It’s not a prose style I prefer, but I respect and admire it when used to this kind of effect. Priest brings the house down without having to shout or strain. You have to marvel at that.
Naturally, memory and the remembering of the past figures deeply in this book. But for me, The Affirmation is really about how we remake ourselves and define and redefine ourselves through stories. Without stories, without our memories and personal histories constructed as stories, without the retelling, there is no reality—no “higher truth.” For those who like their science fiction deceptively quiet and unassuming, there is no one like Christopher Priest.