When my husband and I returned from our honeymoon in Argentina, I set to work transferring our various pamphlets, maps, tickets and so on into an album. Daunted by the mound of material in front of me, I decided to put the album together in the simplest manner I could: by location, and then by theme. My husband, however, wanted to know why I hadn’t opted for a chronological approach. But it didn’t matter, I argued: we both know what happened and when. We had both, surely, shared the same experiences throughout that time.
Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, however, makes a mockery of our perception of chronological impartiality. It’s a haunting, challenging novel that not only critiques our ability to rewrite our experiences both retroactively and in the future, but also upends the validity of the structure and the truth of the novel form itself.
The novel begins with a masterfully written prologue that hints at what’s to come, but is only truly understood at the novel’s conclusion. In it, our narrator admits to looking back upon his childhood in order to determine a particular moment that might have shaped who has has become. The crux of the novel is right here in these two quietly written, laconic pages, but is only revealed, devastatingly, at the book’s conclusion.
Richard Grey, a photojournalist, finds himself in Middlecomb, something between a hospital and a nursing home, after an accident that has destroyed his mobility and taken with it whole sections of his memory. From the very beginning, we have a sense that all is not as it seems, and Grey’s remark that “it was possible to forget, briefly, that Middlecombe was a hospital” is a precursor to the contradictory, misleading narrative that follows.
Grey’s aim, of course, is to regain his memory, something which he attempts with renewed vigour upon being reacquainted, or perhaps newly acquainted, with Susan Kewley, a woman who claims to be his girlfriend. Grey initially has no recognition of her, but after a series of interventions is able to recollect her, although as the narrative progresses, we learn how inappropriate the term “recollect” is, and does in verbose and detailed manner.
Susan, however, has a different memory of their meeting and subsequent relationship, and though there is overlap between the two, there are marked, notable differences. Additional retellings are gradually threaded through the narrative as Grey turns to regressive therapy, visits Susan’s parents, and sorts through his own personal minutiae.
One element that remains constant, however, is the presence of Niall, who is, depending on the retelling, either invisible, or simply not visible.
Niall slips into the narrative unseen, but leaves rather differently.
Susan, for her part, is adamant that Niall is her invisible lover, and who will never leave her, while Grey, on the other hand, sees Niall as an unseen presence who intrudes upon his relationship with Susan. Whether Niall’s invisibility is literal or metaphoric depends on the retelling, of course, much like how the role or importance of any character in the book is dependent on the current narrator and their particular narrative emphasis.
Visibility is a constantly reiterated theme throughout the book, and occurs on many levels and many ways. There’s the moral dimension of visibility, for example. According to Susan, the invisible are all around us, leading unseen lives and unable to help themselves because they are so utterly distanced from our society. Others, however, are socialised not to see such people, and gradually they fade even further and further from our own experiences.
Our own personal narratives, of course, influence whether someone is seen or unseen in our lives, and it’s not surprising that as the characters in the novel become privy to these competing narratives and histories, the role of individuals can be honed in on with laserlike clarity, or allowed to fade into a nothingness from lack of acknowledgement or deliberate avoidance.
Visibility, identity, and memory, then, are inextricably linked in this book, with each feeding off or altering each other, and requiring subsequent reassessments and reworkings that require the very same themselves. As the book reaches what is truly a disturbing conclusion, we begin to see to what extent these things that we hold as truths are merely constructs–and constructs that are not necessarily constructed by ourselves. And the echo of the nihilism in Niall’s name becomes all the more evident.
Personal histories, as we have learnt through the lessons of the past century, are readily wiped out and rewritten according to those who have either the desire to do so, or who wield the power to make it so: those, perhaps, with the “glamour” described in the book. And with these rewritten histories, so too are memories and identities reworked.
What’s even more chilling is that in our desire to make sense of things that are nonsensical, we come to a compromise of experience, something that will best explain the collective experiences of a group. Throughout the book, people are disappeared through various means: memory, hypnosis, the power of narrative–and are reappeared through the same, and the only thing that becomes certain is that everything is uncertain.
This is a novel that slowly un-writes itself, forcing the reader to travel backwards as they travel forward, and creating story upon story as it does so. It’s the kind of book that warrants a re-read in order to tease out those agonisingly subtle cues and mentions, to turn them over and over–something, of course, which will necessarily result in one experiencing a variation of the narrative originally experienced.
It’s no coincidence, one imagines, that Priest returned to this book some twenty years after its original publication in order to rewrite good portions of it, an action that itself has created a series of new narratives and experiences for those readers who read the original.
I suspect that I may indeed pick up the earlier edition–and then come back to rewrite this review.
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Other books by Christopher Priest: