the m john harrison blog

last transmissions

From 2013–

I’m saying we didn’t have command of the vast fictions of the day … The city wasn’t, in the end, where those of us who lived there thought it was. We had already lost it in all senses of that word … All we knew about this place was the news … preferring the past’s acknowledgment of humanity, we remained uninterested by the watertightness of the plot … the halls are aware that–in the end–they can never know what, exactly, the plot was. It’s only silence after that. Back at the beginning there’s the tapping sound, like metal on stone … then the call signs, several of them, very amplified and confused … cries in the halls … a cruel few words and then, “We no longer know which way to face.” The halls are still aware … What if nothing “fell”? Nothing was lost but existed just alongside everything else, fifty years later in the rubble by a farm at the flat end of nowhere … who could write this … everyone has a different story to sell … call signatures in rooks, fresh plough, old silence: “We don’t know what to do. Everything is the alongside of something else.” –Minor players gesture helplessly … signals hard to make out in the chaos as the big institutions go down … everyone desperate now.

passing the sump

Some ways of being dead are good, some are not so good, X claimed. But admitting you are dead is generally a good thing. When he first entered the sump he found a layer of dense blue “air” which lay at the midpoint between the ceiling and the floor. While this layer was generally twelve to eighteen inches thick, and in some places could be measured at twenty five inches, it once shrank to a millimetre or two, causing him to choke and panic. It looked & behaved more like a liquid than a gas. How was he to pass it? He began work immediately. For two nights in a row he didn’t sleep at all. For six nights in a row, he dreamed of the wrong thing. For a further fourteen nights in a row he dreamed that his lungs had turned inside out and expressed themselves through his mouth, after the use of a home-made SCUBA device–he had failed to pass the sump in all fourteen cases. For eight nights in a row he didn’t dream, although he woke with memories of something moving in darkness. On the next night he passed the sump, but not in a dream. No equipment was required. He was able to breathe normally.

page 117

I just played this divination meme: open the nearest book to you at p117, read the second sentence, & that will describe how 2017 happens to you. I opened Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. There aren’t any sentences on p117 in my copy: only the section title “1966”. 1966, my first short story was published. I wrote three or four more & towards the end of the year one of them was accepted by Ted Carnell at New Writings in SF. I lived in shared flats in Shepherds Bush & Holloway, & in a bedsitter in Tufnell Park. We played cards a lot. We scaled up a frame from a Marvel comic to the size of a door & put the words It’s All Stopped Happening–which I had stolen from a cartoon–in Private Eye?–into a superhero’s mouth, I forget who. There was a fire deep in the night in some lean-to shops opposite Holloway Road tube station, we went out to watch. You could feel the heat on your face from the other side of the road. Most mornings we spent in a cafe, playing Beck’s Bolero repeatedly on the jukebox. I did other things, but those are the memories that come to mind without thinking. What I remember most clearly is the constant grinding anxiety. I had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. I had no idea about anything & that was why I clung so hard to writing. It was going to be my only way out from too many situations. To be honest, I’ve grown used to not feeling that way & in 2017 I was hoping for a continuation of that.

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

some falls

Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on

My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.

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The Theory Cadre wishes a Happy 2017 to all our guests, even those who failed to stay in their rooms as requested during the “hollow” period.

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2016 reads

Lots of Penelope Fitzgerald, especially The Bookshop and Offshore. Some Maeve Brennan, whose “I See You, Bianca” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. All of Tom Drury. Beast, Paul Kingsnorth and The Gradual by Christopher Priest tied with Maylis de Kerangal’s faction Mend the Living (tr Jessica Moore) as the best extended metaphors I reviewed this year. Turning Blue, Benjamin Myers, very grim & Yorkshire upland; Underlands, Ted Neild, very geology. Permitted and Forbidden Stories, Valeria Ugazio. The Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick and–speaking of massively clever & entertaining–Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself.

Books I meant to read but didn’t get round to: Ishiguru, The Buried Giant.

Most disappointing re-read, JB Priestley, Saturn Over the Water–loved that book when I was young, should have left it there. Best re-read, LP Hartley’s The Go Between, another blast from the deep past (of which I seem to have more & more these days). Opened out more and contained more and told me more about myself than it did when I read it in 1966 or whenever.

The most dangerous reads this year were women. The last few pages of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun made me cry. The whole of Olivia Laing, but especially The Lonely City, reminded me of more things than I wanted to know. & if you haven’t read it yet, Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be will leave you in shock–seriously, men haven’t written like this for decades. OK, she’s my friend, and we all know her here: but it’s true.

not made in 2011

Note made in 2011:

“I began to feel as if I had learned a lesson in a language I didn’t–-but might soon–-understand. It had something to do with how you are in the world, how you control, or don’t, its access to you. In the light of that, conflicts between characters would be viewed less directly, less in black and white, and seen as less important because they are less conflicts than failed attempts at co-operation. The horror would be located in the ideological fabric of the constructed “world”, while the characters did their best to be human without understanding how they were failing. That was the big idea I was going to take away from 2009, anyway: but because Empty Space wasn’t the best vehicle for an understanding like that, it only shows through in patches and little bits of testbedding. And because I haven’t been working hard enough on short stories, nothing has come of it. I have to file the lesson under ‘ephemeral’. I feel as if I wasted a chance. It’s frustrating to know that something important won’t now find the kind of articulation that led to Climbers or Things That Never Happen.”

Well, wrong. I went back to testing, wrote more short stories, and now this book, though it’s not half the book I imagined in 2009, looks as if it will do the job.

we’re all back from the dead

we’re all back from the dead now
even those of us who were alive to start with
so there’s no point you standing there on the one leg
flapping your arms that way
the building, the bars, the unfortunate street
this whole picture’s uncompromisingly cursed
and whatever you do you will not become a “story”