the m john harrison blog

Tag: books & reviews

bad behaviour

I don’t know what to make of Richard Powers’ Orfeo. One minute I’m luxuriating in its complex weave of themes & thinking it’s the best Booker contender I’ve read so far. The next I’m writing: “In the late 50s/early 60s, JG Ballard would have taken the three or four central images & concepts of this book, compressed them into somewhat less than ten thousand words & made out of them the something astonishing that’s long-windedly hinted at here. I know it’s unforgiveable to say this, but Powers’ Orfeo lumbers by comparison to the Orfeo Ballard never wrote.” This isn’t just bad behaviour, it’s a failure to accept one of the threads of Powers’ argument about the fate of the experimentalist aesthetic over the last fifty years. I’m quite excited by the internal dialogue it’s sparked. (Although I’ve already spotted the upshot, which he telegraphed only a few pages in, & suspect Chuck Palahniuk would have been the man to write that. See? I did it again.)

from the moon in its flight

Loved this–

In 1948, the whole world seemed beautiful to young people of a certain milieu, or let me say, possible. Yes, it seemed a possible world. This idea persisted until 1950, at which time it died, along with many of the young people who had held it.

So bleak.

Read the whole of Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in its Flight” here at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

graham swift

Graham Swift is a watcher, a listener, the recorder of our days. “People are life,” one of his characters suggests, but life is also the social structures that context the living of it. The short stories in his third collection often focus, therefore, on occasions. Weddings and divorces, job interviews and funerals, all the puzzled collisions with the bureaucratic infrastructure, all the usual points of connection between the individual and the culture: if they aren’t providing a direct context, they’re never very far in the background… (more)

dark matter, Juli Zeh

Dark Matter, by Juli Zeh: intelligent, wry, entertaining quantum fiction. I enjoyed it at least as much as J Robert Lennon’s Familiar, perhaps more. Causality, coincidence, context. Desktop model of consciousness. Salome. A frozen head. The quantum mechanics of ethics. The moral & psychological pitfalls of Many Worlds. Very eccentric detectives & criminals presented by an author full of love. As much a contraption as a Cornell Woolrich, but put together with equal rigour– & moreover only there because it’s necessary, because it’s the inevitable outcome of, the properly chosen form for, its philosophical & moral speculations. Finally, & best of all, it accepts the implications of its own assumptions in a way The Goldfinch signally failed to do earlier this year. Clever book & often very funny too.

unused notes for an introduction

(1) what is the exact nature of the catastrophe?

Apotheosis of Quilter & Miranda Lomax in the drained city– Inhabitants reduced to Calibanism– The landscape loses its common reference points– Flash forwards to the next phase– Dead sea imagery contorting itself into counter-images of colour and reflected light– Those bland truisms the Ballardian disaster stripped off the popular apocalyptic fictions of the 1950s– Everyone is leaving for the sea–

(2) Shanghai Jim

“The ironies of this statement seem Swiftian and brutal, an attack on everything we might regard as homely or indeed everything we might regard as childhood. At the same time, we can only conclude that they are a kind of mask; perhaps a way of hiding in plain sight, perhaps a way of playing hide and seek not so much with an audience but with a self–or even a set of selves, like the curiously symbolic characters, fractured and partial, which people his early post-apocalyptic novels and stories.”

(3) Uncertain chemistries

Death is a kind of renewal– Equally, renewal is a kind of death– Love affairs with the jargons of science– This is really two novellas, with an absolute tour-de-force of Ballardian writing as pivot–

(4) The appropriation of symbols

Whose governess could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue– Whose governess could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue– Whose governess could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue– Whose governess could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue– Whose governess could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue–

(5) The legacy of Lunghua Camp.

The exotic as a repository of time– He sees no point in “driving about in a jeep” and fortifying your house against “the Armageddon to come”– This message, confirmation of its own obsolescence, is the city’s last act– The qualifier “failed” ought to be added to all these referential metaphors– Failed Prospero– Failed charismatic– etc– Major Arcana of the new reality–

(6) Things are hotting up

The draining of landscape is complete– Very little remains moving among the dunes– Events sketchy, violent, bare as the salt– Affect bony or invisible, fully converted into the post-catastrophic limbo– If anything can be said to have emerged from the decease of the previous culture, it cannot be described in terms that culture could understand– At the same time we are not looking into a vacuum of meaning– These very short chapters– Each with a theme developed around an encounter– A laboratory of compression– Later used to condense stories like You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe.

7. “Many of the guests had decided not to appear in costume”

Those of us who cut our teeth on Ballard in the mid-to-late 1960s, like puppies gnawing on a chair leg, understood very little but nevertheless elected him as father, map, compass. Later, perhaps, we understood more, but had already gone on to do something different.


For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.

covering policies

British book covers are improving at last. But they could improve further. Bluemoose Books shows the way with this gorgeous example by Andrew Bannerman Bayles, who can be found here.

Beastings, by Ben Myers: available now from Bluemoose Books.

a not entirely imaginary review

A gardening obsessive mixes up a flower [codonopsis] with a woman he sees on a visit to Kew. Soon he’s seeing her at the botanical departments of the libraries and bookshops he customarily frequents; he’s inviting her home, to use his collection of rare botanical books; he’s watching her covertly as she works. Sometimes she brings with her a man who might or might not be her boyfriend, with whom she seems to fall out suddenly. After that she doesn’t talk much. Then she stops coming and he discovers that she has drawn all over the illustrations in his beautiful books and left him the message “Only winter is true”.

David Rose’s Posthumous Short Stories, reviewed for the Guardian today.

reads & non-reads 2013

Most disappointing book of the year: Bleeding Edge took three weeks to read, partly because the steady warble of the prose displayed all the signals of irony but none of the thing itself, replacing it with New York sentimentality, self-congratulation and smartassery. I don’t know enough about coders or coding to know if that part of the book was authentic, but from the tone I had my doubts; and by the end I had given up trying to tell members of the vast supporting cast apart.

Donna Tartt was a quicker read, with some nice turnovers midway and some splendid Vegas anti-sublime (“The sky was a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there”). But The Goldfinch rationalises itself too completely, too competently and too evidently. “There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.” This is what we’re told but it’s not what we’re shown. What we’re shown is the usual fiction contraption, in which meaning equals a fully-closed structure, and in which the idea of “many meanings” itself becomes the one meaning, the solution, a closing down rather than an opening up. Lawrence Durrell was miles ahead of this 60 years ago.

Given what I’ve heard about Dave Eggers’ The Circle, nothing would persuade me to read it in its year of publication–often better with Eggers, as with Franzen, to wait for the ambient rage and hysteria to die down, so that you’re reading the book rather than everyone else’s reading of it.

If I have a book of the year in the accepted sense (ie, that it should be a book published in 2013) it’s Marcel Theroux’s splendid rubber-tube Gothic, Strange Bodies, which compounds John Gray, Samuel Johnson scholarship, Russian weird science and post-structuralism; a lively sarcastic tour of modern ideas of consciousness, personality and the soul. But I’ve noticed that in a couple of the Year’s Best so far, respondents have picked novels from previous years. What an implied admission. What a relief. In July, in an experimental frame of mind, I bought a Kindle and began stuffing it with favourite authors, discovering almost immediately a Denis Johnson I hadn’t read. So Angels (1983) is my out and out book of the year. I only wish I hadn’t read it, so I had it to read again.

exotic, sketchy, hectic

Peter Ackroyd’s Three Brothers might be a detailed a clef rendering of one of the fabulous corruption scandals of the 60s. It might contain a thousand sly references to other writers and their texts. But the main problem is that the delivery of those goods is awkward. Vast amounts of connective tissue are neccessary to make it work, yet remain undeveloped, as a bald line thrown in here and there. A character disappears. “By the way, what happened to Hilda?” another character asks. Almost immediately, enough fresh plot background to float a dozen chapters is crammed without emphasis into a paragraph. None of it mentions Hilda. It’s a puzzling novel: shadowy, but without atmosphere despite the constant appeal to the ghostliness of things; parodic, but with old targets; 80s in feel, but without any of the edge of Hawksmoor; acute and enjoyable in parts, naive and awkward in others–a little like one of Poliakov’s more failed dramas.


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