ANY EDITOR of a genre magazine knows that stories tend to fall into familiar types. As the editor, until recently, of a magazine specializing in supernatural fantasy, I found that one of our most frequent submissions was of a type I called the Poor Misundertstood Paranormal. Most commonly the work of teenaged girls, it had as its heroine a lonely, sensitive social outcast who, unbeknownst to her family and schoolmates, secretly possessed some sort of wonderful supernatural power which set her apart from the rest of humanity.
The heroine of The Glamour, Susan Kewley, is a variation on this type. She's a young Londoner with the unsettling ability to turn herself invisible at will. Well, not exactly invisible: she's there just like the rest of us, casting a shadow, reflected in mirrors. You simply tend not to notice her -- or her shadow, her reflection, or even her voice. If she stood next to you and poked you in the stomach, you'd probably wince and take some Pepto-Bismol, wondering what you'd had for lunch. If she were occupying the only remaining seat at the theater, you'd probably decide you didn't want to sit there, without quite knowing why.
As such, Susan's strange gift may remind readers less of Scottish folk tradition (a "glamour" was originally a magical spell or enchantment) than of The Shadow, who had the power "to cloud men's minds." Indeed, when The Glamour's heroine wishes to sink into invisibility, she does so by "thickening the cloud" that surrounds her.
Being "an invisible" has plenty of rewards. There's no need to pay for beer or cigarettes or the choicest merchandise from Selfridges. You can ride the London underground for free or travel the world, wherever you please; dine at the fanciest restaurants (simply pick the food right off the tray -- no one will recall where it's disappeared); help yourself to money from banks; yawn in boring people's faces; stroll into strange houses and see the inhabitants naked. You never even have to flush the toilet. Best of all, you belong to an elite fraternity of fellow invisibles, a roving, lawless breed who, like gypsies, wander rowdily through London (and, presumably, other cities as well), camp in various department stores, and hang out at "a particular pub" (alas, unnamed) where "glams" congregate, invisible to everyone but themselves.
It's an intriguing notion, and in other hands it might have been good fun. Fun, however, seems the last thing a serious- minded writer like Christopher Priest has in mind. Priest is a fiercely intense young Englishman once identified with science fiction's experimental New Wave, and it's as if, like a certain film director once described by critic Andrew Sarris, he "considers himself too intellectual to tell a story." For some reason Priest has chosen to write The Glamour in a style as flat and colorless as a courtroom affidavit, where a sanitarium has "good food" and "attractive stands of deciduous trees," a psychiatrist's office is "a comfortable place with big leather chairs and a bookcase," a French hotel room has "a large window" and "a pleasant view," mosquitoes whine "unpleasantly," a key character is described as "a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman," and an entire metropolis is summed up this way: "Dijon was a crowded, busy city, with some kind of business convention going on." In the space of just two pages we are told that a male character, encountering Susan, "found her attractive" and "found her company very attractive," and that "she had an attractive body." There may be a logical reason why Priest's hard-to-see heroine should be referred to simply as "a young woman of medium height and build" who "lacked distinctive features," but it's deadly when everything else is described in the same bland tone -- including the novel's hero, appropriately named Richard Grey.
OSTENSIBLY a "normal" or, in the invisibles' parlance, a "flesher," Richard is in fact a pretty fleshless character. He's supposed to be suffering from amnesia after having been caught in an IRA bomb blast, but the "feeling of blankness" that troubles him seems nothing but a literary device. Though we're told of a lengthy series of operations he's supposed to have undergone, his pain never becomes real; when we meet him, he's just a melancholy, self-absorbed soul sitting picturesquely in a wheelchair. We're informed that he's been an internationally renowned news cameraman and that Susan is a freelance illustrator, yet these occupations seem little more than means of explaining how the two pay their rent; Richard's entire career is hurried through in several thin anecdotes, Susan's in a few lines. It's suggested that Richard himself may be a latent invisible ("He's only incipiently glamorous," says one observer), but Priest prefers to leave the truth ambiguous. Until its final pages, in fact, this vague novel's only references to the real and the specific are limited, mysteriously, to a travelogue-like list of French cities and the names of various French restaurants, whose specialties are somewhat preciously recorded in italics, right down to a "plate of salted bretzels," along with the price of a dinner in New Francs and Old. Perhaps the author is simply commemorating the high points of his last vacation.
Equally mystifying is why Priest has elected to narrate the events of the novel from a variety of logically conflicting points of view: Richard's, Susan's, and finally that of Niall, Susan's former lover, a rather nasty would-be writer whose glamour is so highly developed that he can make himself invisible even to Susan herself. Their respective accounts contradict one another -- Richard describes how he met Susan while traveling through France, only to have Susan tell us that she's never been abroad -- so that the reader has the dubious pleasure of learning, after one 60-page section, that everything he's just read is merely the product of a character's imagination, and that another lengthy episode may be no more than "a half-remembered dream." Priest would have us believe that this deliberate confusion merely illustrates "the muddle of reality," and in his final pages, perhaps aware of how his games may have tried the reader's patience, he justifies them with some last-minute philosophizing ("We are all fictions," Niall solemnly declares, " -- you, Susan, to a lesser extent myself"). But latter-day Rashomons are no longer a novelty, Marienbad has already been explored, and I suspect that most of us have had our fill of characters in a novel who discover that they're actually characters in a novel. When, at the end, Niall's long-hinted-at manuscript turns out to be the opening pages of The Glamour, the only surprise is that a writer of Priest's ability would stoop to so old and familiar a dodge.