The Affirmation Hardcover – May 25 1981
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"With formidable imagination and ingenuity, Christopher Priest turns the novel into an Escher tessellation in which figure and ground are interchangeable. Bringing home to the power of narrative to steal reality, affirming nothing, it abandons us mid sentence, posed between page and world, discomfited and hyper-aware." -- Sam Thompson TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Christopher Priest's novels have built him an inimitable dual reputation as a contemporary novelist and a leading figure in modern SF and fantasy. His novel THE PRESTIGE is unique in winning both a major literary prize (the JAMES TAIT BLACK AWARD) and a major genre prize (THE WORLD FANTASY AWARD); THE SEPARATION won both the ARTHUR C. CLARKE and the BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION AWARDs. He was selected for the original Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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A 29-year-old man named Peter Sinclair is tormented by the death of his father, an unhappy relationship with a woman named Gracia and the loss of his job in London. Offered an opportunity to fix up the dilapidated country house of a friend of his late father's, he jumps at the chance. Whilst performing this job he becomes obsessed with the idea of writing his autobiography and defining his life through words. But, anxious to protect the identities of real people, he changes their names, then the names of the places they live, then the very nature of the world they exist in.
But that may be a lie.
A 31-year-old man named Peter Sinclair is living in the city of Jethra, part of the great nation of Faiandland. Unexpectedly, he wins the Lotterie-Collago. The prize is a course of treatment given on the distant southern island of Collago, which grants the recipient immortality but only at the price of total amnesia. On his way through the islands he meets and falls in love with a woman named Seri, but is occasionally haunted by thoughts of a manuscript he wrote two years ago, the story of his life with some of the names and places changed.
That may also be a lie.
The Affirmation utterly defies any attempt to summarise it. It is a twisting and at times bewildering novel that moves between at least three different levels of reality, and each of those is open to multiple interpretations. Peter is really a native of a different, although similar, world and our planet and everything on it is a figment of his imagination. Peter is really a Londoner suffering a total mental collapse in the wake of personal tragedy. He is suffering from amnesia, or schizophrenia, or an acute solipsist, or all three. The manuscripts are real, or only exist in his head. The manuscript he is writing is the actual novel itself, forming a Mobius strip of narrative and causality that loops back in on itself: when you reach the end of the novel, which literally finishes in mid-sentence, you can go back to the start and re-read it as its own sequel, with greater understanding.
Priest does his usual thing here of using a clean, easily readable prose style which lures the reader into a false sense of security until the story's second level of interpretation and reality kicks in, leaving the reader confused as to what is happening. And just when you adjust for that, something else happens that hints at a grander but stranger truth yet. The Affirmation is a puzzle, but not necessarily a puzzle with a single solution, which makes it a fiendishly addictive read.
The Affirmation (*****) is one of the most original and mind-blowing books I have read, somehow even eclipsing The Separation in what it asks from the reader and the possible answers it gives out. The novel is available in the UK from Gollancz and in the USA from Pocket Books. The latter is out of print, but Amazon.com still has some copies available.
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.
"This much I know for sure: My name is Peter Sinclair." the opening line of "The Affirmation".
"The Affirmation" (1981) is a thoughtful and engaging story that seduces the reader into a world more engaging than the one we currently inhabit.
On a lark Peter Sinclair purchased a lottery ticket. He took pity on the seller, a handicapped veteran of the current forever war, so he gave him some business. Against astronomical odds Sinclair won the grand prize: a qualified immortality. After the treatments he would not age or grow senile but would still be subject to death by misadventures. Peter must leave his home in London and travel with a female guide to a distant island in "The Dream Archipelago" to receive the treatments.
Peter's life in London was a strangely convoluted series of discordant events: writing a biography in an emotional stupor, a troubled liaison with a suicidal young women and a conflicted sibling relationship. He gladly escaped with his guide and his manuscript.
During the interminable sea voyage Peter muse on whether he wants to "live forever", should he return to his lady friend and the extent and diversity of the Dream Archipelago.
To say more would be unkind to potential readers. I was fascinated by this story and am very pleased that Mr. Priest has another novel in the Dream Archipelago. On these cold dreary winter days there is no other place I would want to be, perhaps.
It is into this land of figments, the so-called Dream Archipelago, where Peter Sinclair, a tormented writer, escapes. His imaginary alternate, travels amongst the isles, encountering re-conceived versions of people from his own life. He travels towards an uncertain “jackpot,” the erasure of his own memory… As can be predicted, which world is real, and which is a fantasy comes as no surprise. But the way in which Priest reaches this reveal, indicates the novel’s genius—SF tropes can be crafted to push a premise into even more unnerving waters.
If you are interested at all in serious mind-bending explorations of imaginary worlds and the act of writing, read The Affirmation (1981). But, Priest’s tormented protagonist will not appeal to all….
I will leave it at that.