Several years ago I read this wonderful, strange book by Daniel Paul Schreber called Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. In it, Schreber tells the true story of the time he spent undergoing treatment for mental illness during the late 19th, early 20th century. What he describes is not really the actual treatment, but the delusions he suffered. Except, he does not experience them as delusions.
For Schreber the world was a place controlled by alien forces through a network of “strings”. Everything that happens in his ordinary world, which the reader can more-0r-less figure out by reading between the lines, is part of this grand scheme that only Schreber can understand. His goal in his memoirs is not to make the reader see what it’s like to be mentally ill, but to understand what is really going on, that we are all actually controlled by alien forces.
I kept thinking of Schreber while reading Christopher Priest’s novel The Affirmation.
Let me see if I can explain.
The narrator, Peter Sinclair, has failed at life. After losing his job, his home, and his love, he takes refuge in the country home of a family friend where he begins writing his autobiography. He’s not writing a book to sell but a book to help him understand his life. As he becomes obsessed with writing and rewriting the book, be begins to neglect the house and himself. Each new draft of the autobiography sees the story becoming more symbolic, more fanciful, until Peter’s life story is a fantasy novel about a young man only a little like Peter Sinclair.
The autobiography is about a young man who has won a special lottery. This lottery is the means used to select who will receive the medical treatments needed to become quasi-immortal. You can still die afterwards, through mishap or murder, but you’ll stop aging and your body will be able to repair any illness you acquire. You will, however, lose all memory of your life before the treatment.
The Affirmation begins to move between storylines as each version of Peter grows closer to the other. When Peter the lottery winner is asked to write a short autobiography to be used to replace his memory after the treatments, his story is not his own but that of Peter the failure. Whose identity is whose, which story is the “real” one, which is the fantasy?
The Affirmation is a slow burn of a novel, but a slow burn that never reaches a boil. I enjoyed it, the more I read the more I wanted to read, but it never became a page turner for me. To be perfectly honest, I thought it would have made a great novella. I thought the whole thing was fascinating, this idea of what is the real world when you’re delusional. It’s a clever conceit, intelligently told. If I were giving out stars I’d say four out of five.
But I do plan on reading more by Christopher Priest.