the m john harrison blog

Month: August, 2008

dreary dreary dreary

Are we bored with this old future now ? Have we read it all before ? Did the fiction that proposed it turn smoothly from a warning into a to-do list ? Whose fault is that ?

entry 39

“Why do people always encourage their dogs to jump in the Thames ?” I tinker with a few glib replies to that & in the end say nothing. We keep looking out over the sunny mask of the water. Four in the afternoon at the White Hart, on the debatable ground between Barnes & Mortlake, the river & the road. It seems we’ve known each other long enough not to need to speak. Just now I can’t think of anything nicer. Reading: Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red. Writing: my book. Reviewing: The Private Patient, PD James. Accepting: an invitation to Mexico City. Wishing I hadn’t missed: the BFI’s David Lean season in June.

more horror at the bay

C had to have a cup of tea after witnessing this survivor of an ancient race as it emerged from the sand on a popular Welsh beach.

“It needed to tell its story,” she reports. Above all, it needed to be seen. This need was so intense she could only take photographs helplessly until the light went, trapped there, unaware of the incoming tide, by the narcissism of vanished & horrific species.

Photo: Cath Phillips.

drama queens

Tim Etchells writes to say that Drama Queens by visual artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, for which Tim wrote the text, is to be presented at The Old Vic on Sunday 12 October 7.30pm, with Kevin Spacey reading one part. Drama Queens is a 35 minute play for 6 radio controlled model sculptures: not, maybe, Kevin’s usual kind of thing. It will be a one-time item, so book now. & more here.

My review of Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days should be in the August 22nd issue of the TLS.

lost at sea

This review of John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor appeared in the TLS in 1991:

Every teller of tales, John Barth tells us, is a supplicant. The ageing trouper Scheherezade–having long ago lost her Sultan, her children and her audience–looks Death in the face and asks him: “So then… What’s my ticket price ?” It is, of course, a story. The joke is lost on no one. Not Death, not Scheherezade herself, not the ageing trouper John Barth, not us the audience of John Barth.

Launched like a paper boat from Scheherazade’s deathbed, Simon Behler comes to life on “a tidewater shore” in East Dorset, Maryland, 1930. At seven he discovers water. He receives premonitions of a “boundary between worlds”. At fourteen, he is sexually initiated by Crazy Daisy Moore, a girl puzzlingly mature for her years. Crazy Daisy’s father Sam introduces Behler to A Thousand and One Nights, on the grounds that one day it might help him find out who he is. By the time we next see him, as New Journalist “William Baylor”, cruising the Virgin Islands to celebrate his fortieth birthday, he certainly needs help. His wife has just tried to kill him. He is sexually attracted to their daughter Juliette. So far, his “voyages” have had only a metaphorical resemblance to those of Sindbad the Sailor. Now, in the sexual, spiritual and psychic frustration of middle age, he needs the world to be more than it is. Wandering dazedly through Charlotte Amalie he makes his first brief astonishing trip “over the boundary”, out of the Caribbean and into the bazaar of Jmaa el Fna, Marrakesh, then back again.

Ten years later, he has settled with Crazy Daisy Moore’s younger sister, the adventurous photo-journalist Julia. (Daisy herself, trapped on the lee shore of her incestuous relationship with Sam Moore, is enacting her nickname in a Florida asylum.) Julia drowns when, reporting an historical reconstruction of the Sindbad voyages, they are shipwrecked near Sri Lanka. Baylor is pulled from the sea fifteen hundred miles away, having crossed the boundary Crazy Daisy helped him find, to become “Somebody the Sailor” –pirate, navigator, unwilling witness to the local commerce of castration and murder, ransomed maidenheads, treasure and betrayal. Finally, first rapist then lover of Sindbad the Sailor’s beautiful daughter Yasmin, he fetches up in “a Baghdad not out of The Arabian Nights but in it”, there to become a beggar in the house of the incestuous old merchant himself. They begin to trade stories. Will Somebody ever get home again ? How will he get home ?

With its turban unwound like this, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is a cheerful confection and not much else. In the reading, it’s a cheerful confection and too much else. This effect is achieved by Barth’s extraordinary narrative method. “To sail from Serendib to Basra, one sets a course for Basra,” Behler tells Sindbad: “but to sail from Basra to Serendib is quite another matter. As we both know, it is in the nature of that elusive island that under no circumstances can it be reached by heading in its direction.” The moment we leave port it is to be lost at sea.

We begin at the middle, itself an outcome of events we will not see until the end. Behler narrates Scheherazade, who narrates Behler, who invents “Baylor”, who, as “Somebody”, must identify Sindbad from his own fabrication “My Six Voyages”. Sindbad tells himself into existence. He is promptly untold again through the anecdotes and biographies of his abused daughter, his abused foster-son, his sociopathic household staff. Beneath this “sea of stories”, motives multiply chaotically until its surface is ripped into a surf noir of inversions, insertions, recursions: then further, into puns and word games. This chaos often resembles an attempt by Walt Disney to animate Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse. But as he and Somebody exchange narrative strokes, Sinbad’s fabulations steadily reveal a man weakened and emptied by experience rather than, as he has claimed, filled and strengthened by it. When we enter his house–which is his identity–we find peace, tranquility, wisdom. By the time we leave it we recognise that any sense of order is an ephemeral effect of plot and boiling counterplot. Sometimes we wonder about our own house.

Clearly, a book so full of story-telling is in some way about story-telling. “…in my other life,” Barth has Somebody say, “I had been not exactly a teller of tales but a successful reporter of my own adventures.” This is Sindbad’s position too. The anecdote, that barest form of fiction, is not dissimilar to its nearest non-fictional counterpart, the lie. When Julia Moore, making a photographic essay on “the new Spain”, poses a shot of hang-gliders circling above Don Quixote’s windmills, then claims to have “seen” this conjunction, we can appreciate that fiction and fact might be inextricably webbed. Barth goes further. We lie the world into existence, he claims, on a daily basis. He accepts it with the calm of an old man, perhaps tired of the sea.

You don’t have to agree with him to enjoy the tale; and, metafiction aside, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is fun. When she finishes at last–her “catharsis catharsed, epiphany epiphed, dramatic tension resolved, ground situation altered meaningfully and irreversibly” –Scheherazade’s classical audience has netted all the fish of classical narrative: frustration and delight, impatience and anger, and a resolution staged by the benificent Haroun al-Rashid himself, Caliph of Baghdad and Dispenser of Denouements.

What interests me now is that penultimate paragraph. (I’m not saying it didn’t interest me when I wrote it.)

is it me ?

On Farringdon station today I saw a man in a shiny Norman helmet & full chainmail shirt. They looked real enough. Below that he had on old combats & new engineer boots. There was a rucksack on the bench beside him. He seemed depressed. Every so often he looked at his watch, picked up the rucksack & put it down again. He was heading east. To that lost soldier I want to say: If you’re out there, I feel your pain. Please get in touch & tell me if the battle was ok for you. I had a good lunch, myself. Pollock in batter with mushy peas & chips at Medcalf. A cortege went through Exmouth Market while I was there. But do be in touch. Is there light still in Elidor ? Does the steel remain ? Really, I was as sorry as anyone to hear Pauline Diana Baynes had died.

horror at rhossili bay

C had to have a cup of tea after witnessing this survivor of an ancient race as it emerged from the sand on a popular Welsh beach.

“It needed to tell its story,” she reports. Above all, it needed to be seen. This need was so intense she could only take photographs helplessly until the light went, trapped there, unaware of the incoming tide, by the narcissism of vanished & horrific species.

Photo: Cath Phillips