I have only recently become familiar with the work of Christopher Priest. For some reason that escapes me, I never felt quite motivated enough to read his novels. I believe it’s because his work has been classified as fantasy rather than science fiction, and personally I’m prejudiced towards the word “fantasy”. Whenever I think about this genre I imagine overblown worlds and flamboyant characters. Perhaps the best way to describe my feelings towards fantasy is that it’s too unrestrained. There are countless of epic sagas catalogued as fantasy, and it’s as if the writers follow a formula where “more” is “best”. Case in point, the famous Dragonlance series; sure, some of them might be good, but I can’t understand how it could be attractive to read 190 frigging novels based on the same setting and recurring characters. I mean, enough is enough.
Another example is Lord Of The Rings. No, I’m not going to criticize the three novels, not even The Hobbit, because they are all very good books. But try reading The Silmarillion, or The Appendices, or all the many tales based on Middle-earth. I can assure you, you will get sick of Middle-earth. Again, Tolkien got too carried away with his creation. Fantasy writers just can’t put their settings to rest; they show too much, and as a result the magic is gone.
So, this is why I find the “widespread” fantasy genre so unappealing and why I dismissed Christopher Priest at first, until I decided one day to finally try The Affirmation, a book about which I had always heard many great things. And I was blown away — it is, hands down, one of the most absorbing reads I ever had. I probably finished it in three days and couldn’t honestly think about anything else while reading it. It also made understand what “fantasy” really means, what should mean in the market. There are no knights, dragons, battles, rings, creatures or swords in the story. This is a book about a man, Peter Sinclair, who wants to find his identity. Sounds awfully charming, right?
Priest, like many great writers, hates to be categorized, and after reading practically all his novels I can understand why. He has been often compared to Borges and H.G. Wells, but in the end Priest is Priest. Just like Ballard is Ballard and Dick is Dick. Those guys are in a league of their own. And the problem with categorizations becomes evident: they put you, the reader, in a state of mind long before you even open the book; and that is bad because it creates expectations, and if the story doesn’t meet them, its impact is diminished. The best approach to reading a book really is if you know nothing about it with the exception perhaps of a brief description, and fortunately I knew very little about The Affirmation when I picked it. However, here I am telling you about the book and committing the sin of creating expectations, but I only do this because I want you to read it. The Affirmation is a compulsive read, it breaks rules, it creates new rules, and it has the power to change the way you think about a story.
As I said before, the plot has a confused and discouraged man, Peter, a 29 year old englishman, looking to define himself. His life is in a downward spiral to nothingness that begun with the death of his father, then losing his job, and now a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. He has no direction to take, nothing to aspire to, no friends; he is literally alone. Peter realizes that he must start from scratch and find a new life for him, but to do so he must understand himself. Who he is, where and how he failed, how he can improve himself. Rather than seek a definition, he must affirm his persona, start from a blank slate and make a better man of him. Clearly, this isn’t Dungeons & Dragons. Peter travels to a distant farmhouse in the countryside, lent to him by a friend couple, with the sole purpose of writing an autobiography. Surrounded by calm fields, peace and quietness, he finds himself in the right setting for introspection. Peter begins the task of writing a story, his story. After several pages, however, he’s not convinced. The words are a mere echo of his life, they don’t add or change anything; basically, he’s back to zero. Peter understands that life is merely an intricate sequence of events. There is no form, no story to tell. The key resides in how we perceive life; we give it meaning. During our childhood, we are surrounded by mysteries. They are mysteries because we don’t know their adequate explanation, and yet they persist in our memories because they meant so much to us. We may find the explanation as adults but they come too late; we cannot fantasize about cold facts. So what’s more valid; the memory or reality?
This is what Peter asks himself, and he finally finds the answer: he can only define his identity by means of the metaphor and the imagination. There is no point in writing about his own past, the one he already knows; he must create a different Peter, someone who resembles him at least on a very deep level (wishes, values) and represents the person he wants to become. He begins a new manuscript, rewriting his life, himself, his relationships, everything he was and will become. His friends and family change and are no longer based on actual people but creations of his own mind, different characters that nonetheless represent what real life humans meant to him. He’s still Peter Sinclair but in an alternate reality, a fantastic region comprised by thousands of peaceful islands amidst a world of war called the Dream Archipelago. In this reality, Peter has won a lottery where the jackpot is not money but a complex medical procedure called “athanasia” that can grant him immortality…
If that doesn’t compels you to read the book, then I’m afraid you’re hopeless. Seriously, The Affirmation is without question one of the better books of modern literature. By an ironic twist of fate (or not?), this is also the book that defined Priest himself and his unmistakable style. The same approach (perception of reality and quest for identity) was used in The Glamour, The Prestige, The Separation, among others, and many of his short tales. They are all sublime works as well, but The Affirmation remains the landmark achievement: it’s too hard to put down, partly because the story is exciting and original, and partly because Priest is a master of the language. His prose is impeccable and he effortlessly sucks you into both of Peter’s realities. The ending is impossible to describe as it literally redefines the meaning of “climax”. This is one of those stories that simply can’t be filmed and only works in the written form — it has to be inside your head.
As I said in the beginning, this is the book that really made me understand fantasy, and why someone like Borges is considered a writer of this genre. Fantasy can be subtle and it doesn’t have to involve mages and supernatural phenomenons. The word has almost become a synonym of Lord Of The Rings but this due to a dysfunctional industry that insists on putting everything inside categories and readers that accept those decisions like sacred commands. Whereas Tolkien has virtually exhausted Middle-earth and I couldn’t bear reading another book of him, Priest on the other hand showed very little of the Dream Archipelago and this is why I can’t wait to revisit his creation, which remains shrouded in dreamy mysteries. I no longer think of fantasy as epic quests and sorcery but new and exciting ways of blending reality with fiction, of playing with our minds and making us rediscover ourselves.