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The Glamour
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 235 pages

The Glamour
Christopher Priest
Christopher Priest's awards include receiving the 1974 BSFA Award for Inverted World and the 1996 World Fantasy Award for The Prestige. He is married to fellow-novelist Leigh Kennedy, and lives in Hastings, UK with their twin children.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Separation
SF Site Review: The Extremes
SF Site Review: The Prestige
Christopher Priest Interview
Review of The Prestige
Review of The Prestige

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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Once upon a time, the British writer Gabriel Josipovici wrote a book called The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction wherein, toward the very very end, he defined what he called the "anti-novel," saying that it is anti "Not because it sets itself up in direct opposition to the novel, but because it enlists the help of the novel to lull the reader into a false sense of security and then, by pointing to its own premises, pitches him into reality."

Once upon a time, the British writer Christopher Priest wrote an anti-novel called The Glamour wherein, toward the very very end, the narrator says, "We all make fictions. Not one of us is what we seem. ... The urge to rewrite ourselves as real-seeming fictions is present in us all. In the glamour of our wishes we hope that our real selves will not be visible."

The moral of the story, then, is the story itself. What Josipovici misses, and what Christopher Priest gets, is the fun -- the sheer joy of being part of a trick, of letting the magician-writer warp reality into a funhouse mirror of itself. All fiction does this to some extent, but certain types of novels -- I hesitate to call them "anti-novels", because they seem instead to be über-novels, novels that revel in their own novelty -- crank up the engines of fabulation and drive at unsafe speeds past grand pretensions of metaphysical hoo-ha toward a finish line that is simultaneously the beginning, end, and middle of the freeway of desire.

In other words, I liked this book. ("Like" is such a hollow, awful word, one suitable only to be used in sentences that also include "anti-novel", which the previous does not, though it could in your imagination if you remember it just wrong.) Let's begin again:

Once upon a time, Christopher Priest wrote a novel called The Glamour. It was published in 1984. This is not a review of that novel, because I have neither seen nor read that novel. This is a review of a novel called The Glamour published in 2005 that contains, it is rumored, revisions from a novel called The Glamour published in 1984, though I cannot tell you the extent of these revisions, or even if they are the same revisions rumored to be included in an edition of a novel called The Glamour published in 1996. (I remember asking someone about this, I do, but I don't remember them answering.)

The 2005 novel I read is one that reviewers would be justified in hauling out various reviewerly clichés to describe: achingly beautiful, haunting, a masterpiece, sensitive and luminescent, it limns the liminal....

None of this is very helpful, is it? Let's begin again:

Christopher Priest's The Glamour tells the story of Richard Grey, a television cameraman for news programs, who wakes up to find himself in a hospital after having been injured by a car bomb explosion. He does not remember anything about the previous few weeks of his life before the explosion, and is surprised when a visitor tells him she is his girlfriend, Susan. With hopes that she can restore his memories for him, though, Grey lets her into (or back into) his life, and soon discovers that she has (or thinks she has) the ability to be invisible -- to be, as she calls it, glamourous:

...she explained that it was an old Scottish word, brought into general English before its meaning became corrupted. In the original sense a "glammer" was a spell, an enchantment. A young man in love would approach the wisest old woman of his village and pay her for a charm of invisibility to be placed on his beloved, so that she should no longer be coveted by the other young men. Once she had been glammered, or made glamourous, she was safe from prying eyes.
Grey also discovers that Susan has (or thinks she has) a friend named Niall, who was once her boyfriend, and who is very controlling, and who is entirely invisible, the most glamourous man of all.

The problem is, not all of these pieces make sense. Grey has memories and dreams, but they contradict some of what Susan tells him. But he has artifacts that contradict his memories. And one of his doctors at the hospital, in an attempt to relieve his amnesia, gave Grey the hypnotic suggestion to see a woman disappear. As for the invisible Niall, Susan's parents have a picture of him, but not much memory. Susan proves to Grey that he is himself capable of being invisible. But it may just be that he doesn't really exist. (Then who sent the postcard from St. Tropez, the one signed by X? And who in their right mind would ever believe everything they see on the evening news?)

Priest's accomplishment is that he has written a truly engaging and suspenseful novel of ideas, the sort of book that can be read profitably by anyone interested both in stories and in philosophies, but it doesn't require advanced study of either philosophy or narratology to understand and to enjoy. It plays with many of the conventions of realistic fiction, undermining each of them, but does so in a way that feels more substantial than if it were just an intellectual game -- it digs deep toward emotionally affecting questions, the problems of human life: problems of memory and yearning, of love and loss, of what it means to know other people and yourself, of what it is to be whole. The questions are, and have always been, unanswerable in any general sense, but they can be answered within the contexts of specific lives and within realms of imagination, though very often the answers lead only to more questions, sometimes the same questions that began the search for answers in the first place.

Let's begin again: Once upon a time...

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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