the m john harrison blog

the pure & the impure

Lots of responses like James Lasdun’s to Michael Finkel’s book on Christopher Knight, Stranger in the Woods.

The interesting thing about Finkel’s revision of Knight is not that it attempts to romanticise a thief but that it accidentally questions the idea of wilderness survival as an available form of self-authentication.

The space he went to ground in was already impure: full of weekend retreats and–presumably–used for outdoor recreation. Any attempt to “survive” authentically there was doomed by that. Its usage as a space was already domesticated, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to steal from holiday homes.

The same was true of Christopher McCandless and of John Krakeur’s book about him: the space in which McCandless tried to authenticate himself was not considered by local users of wilderness to be particularly wild. He wasn’t, as far as they were concerned, all that deep in. That was the tenor of the local reaction to the tragedy. With a little of the workaday understanding the local users had, their complaint went, he could easily have survived.

The problem with that position is that it describes the wilderness as already partly domesticated. The level of skill required might be specialised, but it is perfectly available. And the more people take up the skills, the more normalised the process of survival becomes. That begins an inevitable domestication of the space which will, eventually, lead to it becoming a leisure resource, an extension of the suburb.

So when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might (that is, as “the land” now presents itself), you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit admission of that.

marooned this side of heartfelt

I’m old enough to remember things that happened around 1949, although they are mostly about the weather & building sites. I don’t seem to remember myself at that age, only the things I looked at. Puddles. Careful stacks of materials. Sacks of sand. I don’t have a narrative of those places or of myself in relation to them; I’m careful not to retrofit them with one. They weren’t in cities, or even, really, in towns. They weren’t bomb sites. I wasn’t drawn to them, I already lived there. They were brand new greenbelt housing estates in Staffordshire or Warwickshire, on the perimeters of which the builders were still at work. They weren’t sites of fantasy or escape. The objects in them were fascinating because they were the objects of those places. Or they were intrinsically interesting, on a day-to-day basis, because of some quality, such as being transparent. Or frozen. Or yellow. Or having moved since I last saw them.

what I’m after here

Something the reader can only navigate with a kind of emotional sonar. I mean, a space distancing enough to be reverberant, remote-feeling enough to be on the astral plane. (You have to imagine those last two words as intoned by Jonathan Richman in the eponymous song.) So the landscape of the book wants to be a big empty yet resonant emotional space in which the characters don’t even know they’ve lost their orientation. There’s some kind of alien invasion or hauntological action going on in there, but even that’s at one remove or maybe two. The space is loaded but as the reader you don’t know how to complete it. You don’t know what your side of the bargain is. It would be easier if you thought the characters knew the right kinds of things about themselves, but they so very clearly don’t. Meanwhile, the pings come back from emotional structures–Big Dumb Objects–so very far away you can’t tell them from lightweight passing concerns.

evening routines of the world’s most unproductive people

• Not collecting anything or putting it in order.
• Standing on the stairs thinking what to do next.
• Thinking what you would do if another set of conditions applied.
• Going dressed for Cannery Row.
• “When I feel I’ve had it up to here with the entire shitshow, I sit in a chair.”
• You don’t know what you know.
• Having the wrong set of emotions for what you dreamed.
• Not knowing how it happened.
• Remembering that, before you came here, people seemed to move about a bit more.

the new real bread

First the corporate bakers replace bread with a packaged, highly uniform item based on the cheapest ingredients and most cost-efficient production methods. By comparison, old fashioned bread is too slow, too difficult to make; it has a shorter shelf life and can be shown to appeal to fewer customers: they drop it from their repertoire, on the basis of the fall in demand they themselves have stimulated. As a result, perhaps a generation later, there begins to be seen a minor but discernible movement in the population itself towards “real” bread, generally defined as “wholemeal”; a bread which, though it is slower to make and harder to store, has all the qualities manufactured bread now lacks–taste, texture, substance & so on. The corporate bakers ignore this “new” bread until it begins to win publicity & shelf-space, at which point they claim that its entire raison d’etre is baseless: their product adheres fully to the regulations that define bread; it is just as good, just as wholesome, nutritious and fulfilling to eat; and anyway, people prefer its qualities of softness, reproducibility and long shelf-life. They commission advertising around these points. They commission nostalgia advertising. The wholemeal market, though still small, continues to grow. The corporate bakers commission cultural attack advertising, which shows ordinary, decent voters trying to make fish-finger-&-tomato-sauce sandwiches with “difficult” & foreign breads. But while these ads are comedy & rhetorical gold, and work well with the confirmation biases of eighty percent of the bread market, it’s now clear to corporate accountancy that there is in fact money to be made from the other twenty percent. Achieving by political lobby a change in the rules that define the notion of “wholemeal” which allows them to make a cheap, long-life, soft-feel imitation and still call it “real bread”, the corporates begin their move back into the slice of the market they voluntarily vacated a generation before, publicly condemning the “crushing consistency” of their own core product and tempting wholemeal experts away from their start-ups to design & package lines of the new real bread they will move through locally branded outlets set up on the sites of the old high street bakeries. Equilibrium returns. Everyone is safe.

present is the new absent

Strange to be researching Barnes, from a distance, for a novel that seemed impossible to write while you were there. Still, those are the breaks. Or at any rate, the abandoned graveyards, pop cultural sites and tales of dismembered murderees. Also I feel a bit too like the central character of this. Author as absent detective. In fact it occurs to me thatDSCF7362the point of view carefully delineated in that story, which tries to present its back to (put itself at an equal distance from) every kind of human event, is precisely what made the new novel impossible to write. I went up an alley in the first half of the last decade and then spent far too much time trying to minutely describe the wall I found at the end of it. But what’s new.

I wrote this a couple of years ago in the usual vague hope of trying to work out who was writing what. Now that I’ve finished that part of the book, & am no longer the absent writer in a vanished life, it turns out that I have to become the absent writer in a life I’ve hardly even got used to yet. This is just like finding one day you have really bad eyes, which, if they resolve one thing, won’t resolve another. The main problem is still to keep yourself an equal distance from everything, but this time in some very slightly less flattened-off way. I’ll be glad when this one is over.

(Actually, what’s been fascinating me about this from the beginning is that nobody in the book is connecting with anybody else in any sense & while showing that is important, having the text admit it would be outright death to the whole thing. That insulates you from the sentimentality of some otherwise quite good contemporary US writers, but makes things tense & bleak & you’re not to admit that either.)

Photo: Cath Phillips, 2013

some news

My new collection will be published later this year by Comma Press. It’s taken a while to get this sorted, and I want to thank everyone involved–also apologise to everyone else for the wait. Details as they arrive, here and from the Comma team. The book features eighteen short stories–five of which are original, unpublished & unavailable anywhere else and a further half dozen that will be new to most readers–and some flash fiction, much of which will be recognisable to habitues of the Ambiente Hotel. Contents include: a distributed sword & sorcery trilogy; two or three full-size sci-fi novels, one of which is two sentences and forty eight words long (fifty if you count the title); several visits to Autotelia, some that identify as such and some that don’t; and two final dispatches from Viriconium, neither of which would get house-room in an anthology of epic fantasy.

More details here.

midnight’s broken toe

I enjoyed this article for the way it makes the reality TV aspect of Trumpist politics so clear, but even more for: “Nobody wants to buy a little piece of confusion and sadness.” The deep honesty hidden in this image is the only true thing in the world as constituted now. I wouldn’t normally feel anything for TPT, but here she is, someone human among all these awkwardly-posturing orange mannequins, a woman with a brain tumour forced out of her own reality show into honesty by her terror at the approach of death. She became real, they’re still puppets operated by themselves (“selves” whose very idea of self is penetrated the market they maintain & exploit). That we aren’t winners in that rhetoric suddenly becomes the most powerful ground on which to build. If I’m playing anything on a loop now, it’s “Chimes of Freedom”.

note from the ruins

Epistolatory fiction of the near future based around a cache of emails found in a long-abandoned server farm below the Arctic Circle:

… your last mail … suspected for about 5 years there’d been some really big change we weren’t seeing. Something our definitions & our picture of politics simply wasn’t taking into account. That turned out to be what’s happening now, of course! … also had this feeling there were two elephants in the room, not one. … certain now it was AGW … [large amount of text missing ] … Capital was already thinking forward … climate denial always a way of buying time. The New Elite wasn’t just a kleptocracy, it was the kleptocrats ensuring their own survival & the survival of the kleptostate through the transition period … bastards … let everything outside the borders go to hell & hope to come out of it with an Arctic resource fiefdom … can’t point to what convinced me in the end, probably his Rosneft pay-off. Anyway, great to hear that the kids are doing well & see you soo

Some corruption of data, obviously, as you would expect given the circumstances, not to say the times.

the pellicci tract

“Stop here,” Aschemann ordered “We can have a nice breakfast here.” They swept into the kerb outside E Pellicci. A notorious cholesterol venue halfway down Neutrino, Pellici’s offered deco walls and cafe electrique. More important, Aschemann said, you could hear the food smoking in the animal fat. At that time of the morning Pellici’s was full of rickshaw girls in pink and black lycra gorging themselves on simple carbs. They stood awkwardly up to the counter, unable to use the seating, ducking their heads needlessly, embarrassed to be among people of ordinary size. Aschemann smiled around at them, one or two smiled back. Once he was eating he seemed to forget both his wife and the murders.

–Nova Swing, 2007