the m john harrison blog

Month: December, 2018

seasonal greetings from the staff of the back bar at the ambiente hotel

Just to say that Early Baroque Karaoke & Strange Matter Telescopy Night will continue in the conference room every third Thursday of the month. And a reminder from Alyssia that parking has been strictly by permit since the incident at the entrance to the western exit ramp. The team is working hard to remove various debris, but for now please park on the left hand side of the main courtyard being careful to leave room for Others.As you can see, while heavy snow has fallen around the hotel, less–for reasons as yet unclear to the Epistemological Commission–has fallen on it. Given the political climate, no one in the back bar is risking “Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year”, but try to have a good time one and all, in this season of deep explanatory collapse. Hope to be able to recognise you on the other side.

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a story

I was buying greengrocery at the greengrocer’s over the road when the greengrocer said to me, “Two things always surprise me. The first is that a great deal of what a greengrocer sells isn’t green. Take oranges: they’re orange. Or purple grapes, I have some nice ones of those. The second thing is how much greengrocery is actually green. Why are so many things green?” I explained to him photosynthesis and how, quite deep down, it rested in quantum mechanics. “Strange, though,” he said, looking round his shop as if reassessing it. From my second floor office across the street I had a good view into the greengrocer’s window. The shop was empty and behind the banks of green objects I saw him kicking angrily at a wooden box.

still a bit disoriented

Even after all this time, finishing a book is like coming out of some much more physical process. Hands and shoulders stiff but not from typing. Not even, really, from anxiety, but from being up to the neck of your brain in it. It seems to get worse as you get older. The last three months I looked haggard in the mirror. It was the look the Netflix make-up artist devises for the leading meth-head. For three months you emerge at five in the afternoon with eyes dull from staring at the other world and bump into stuff or murder people, for instance because they say the wrong thing. During that period you definitely were not here, wherever here is. Actually I prefer to be in that state tho’ it is grim, because it is a condition like illness or when you thought you were at death’s door or some kinds of climbing on your own, a state in which every exterior pressure that insisted you do the thing can now fuck off because you are really doing the thing and all the pressures and rewards are interior. You are in it and there is no way–this side of falling downstairs–that you are coming out. Not without the book. And then people better be careful how they greet the returning traveller in the wreckage of the unwisely modified vehicle, with his 1960s underground comic book eyes both bruised and startled. Also still quite desperate as if some internal clanking noise hasn’t yet abated, some internal picture hasn’t yet faded, etc etc etc. Then all the difficulty of making an exit from that end of things and walking away because you have to be someone quite different to do the next part of the job.

we go through the doors that open

Text may appear here as the image fades.

back to the old haunts

Hauntings are structural. The text is haunted by its own components & haunts them in return, offering an almost constant bait & switch. Eventually every haunting is haunted by another haunting. Every element flips from being a subject to being an object, inviting the reader to view from a sequence of continually refreshed relationships between context and contexted. The background of one scene is the foreground of the next. It is impossible to say, in the illuminated flipbook of the narrative, which is the “character” –the haunted vicar; the moonlit figure crawling across the lawn towards the manse; or the manse itself; or the lawn; or the Church of England; or the cedar trees off at the edge of the picture; or the engraver of the image, who never appears, in fact is never even mentioned anywhere in the fiction and is only present by having once been real and having once engraved a very similar item in what might be called “real” life.

end reading guilt

Christmas being the season in which content filler replaces stocking filler, it’s also the season for faux-bracing tosh about “guilty pleasures”. What I never understand is the use of Dan Brown as the exemplar of the middle class “guilty reading pleasure”. He’s the one they all admit to, with that cute shuddery little frisson they do to show they know they’re on to the right wrong thing. How do they read him? I mean that literally; I mean, how do they work out what he’s saying. When I say I can’t parse Dan Brown that is a simple, direct, irony-free statement. I can’t make head or tail of him. If I ever finished a book of his I wouldn’t feel guilty so much as puzzled. I never know what he’s talking about, or what he wants me to think about the things he’s failing to convey to me. Unlike, say, Lee Child, he can’t write a clean, cheap-as-chips sentence that shows the customer round the shop and makes the trip to the till a completely unguilty pleasure. I love thrillers. I never used to feel the slightest bit embarrassed on their behalf. I even love metaphysical conspiracy thrillers. But Dan Brown brought that whole delightfully barking subgenre into disrepute. Surely (other than Lord Archly Fucked-Up of Syntax) he’s the definition of unreadable for even the most marginal value of the term “read”?

imaginary review x

The effects the author got are an accidental by-product of doing things the wrong way, here are some people who did it properly/first. Later, in addition to the term “surrealism” we will be abusing the terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” because we haven’t a clue; and if the author has ever mentioned reading another author we will be claiming to detect the influence of that author here, along with the influence of anyone who has ever done anything that, from our severely limited reading, resembles–even in the most superficial way and whenever they did it–the thing we think the author did. By the way, no real person with agency would behave the way this author’s characters do, because (a) mobile phone! or (b) advanced AI or another invention that isn’t real but has been in science fiction a lot and anyway it is not clever, positive or even nice.

one or two news items

The new novel is finished subject to tinkering (also to waking up at three in the morning, looking at part of it & thinking: what on earth did you think you were trying to do there?). I can’t say what kind of novel it is because I don’t feel I know yet. Maybe I’ll never know, but I can say that it’s set now, it’s odd, and it’s not a space opera, so that gives you some idea of what it isn’t. After that, things take on, as they should do, a slight, puzzling shimmeriness.

No title as yet. Publication details as and when I have them. And maybe the odd little excerpt to tease & confuse.

I started a version of this novel in 2008, looking to pick up where I had left off in the mid-to-late 90s with Signs of Life and Travel Arrangements. I wanted to take advantage of the things I’d learnt from the kind of short stories I began writing around then. That process was interrupted and modified by Empty Space; then the post-2012 version itself was interrupted by a house move and a heart attack, with an accompanying sense that I’d better get fit, go climbing again and generally take charge of myself from then on if I wanted to keep pushing and not give in and become old; and also by the recognition that this novel didn’t represent a direction I was going to be encouraged to take (& that therefore it was exactly the right thing to do). So I’m glad to have got to this point and be able to move along one way or the other.

In the last five or six years I’ve received such support, from so many new, exciting and unexpected directions, that I’ve had more sense of the fun of being a writer–not to mention the worth of it–than at any time since the early 1970s.

Next year I’ll transfer my attention to the other new novel I’ve been working on the sly: but also enjoy the luxury of finishing two short stories that have been slowly ungluing themselves from the edges of what I laughingly call my “mind”; and two really exciting collaborative projects nothing to do with on-the-page fiction. I also hope to do more readings, because I enjoy that kind of ephemerality of presentation, that way of entertaining people. Readings are a good way of finding out who you are and what you write, and extending that; and they offer audiences a new way in, too. I’ll be back to reviewing in the new year, for the Guardian & the TLS, and I’m hoping to collect a “personal anthology” of favourite short stories for Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent series here.

Sadly, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen remain out of print. Perhaps something can be done about that in 2019; I intend to be rather more energetic, and rather more vocal about the problem in certain quarters. Whether anything can be done or not, there’ll be a “selected” short stories to include material from The Machine in Shaft Ten onwards, introduced, I hope, by someone young, lively and cleverer than me, and aimed at an audience I didn’t until recently know that I had.

My slogan for 2019 will be: We go through the doors that open.