the m john harrison blog

Category: books & reviews

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

imaginary review, 2009

A clear & useful bridge between science and the public is constructed in this empathic literary novel of a boy & how he comes to terms with his world. Explanations of everything from black holes to epigenesis demonstrate the author’s engagement with the scientific worldview, & act as the pivots of metaphors for a full range of human emotions & concerns. The total effect is one of numbing boredom, & of a mind which has carefully removed everything of excitement from its encounters with physics, cosmology & molecular biology. A Hay Festival version of the Popular Mechanics-style science fiction of the 1920s, this novel has a similar mission to educate its demographic–primarily 40/50-year-old reading-group members with a humanities degree. As a result, the very last thing its author has managed is to be, as his dustjacket claims, “boldly imaginative”. The most interesting thing about the book is its title, the literary referentiality & linguistic quirkiness of which promise more than they can ever deliver.

More imaginary reviews here, or at your usual outlets.

good breast bad breast

Elements of an audience reject the majority of the work, then, on the basis of a wilful misreading of something written half a century ago, publicly rebuild its author into the symbol they prefer. This move is acceptable, perhaps, in the case of a single reader & a single book. A book is published: an act which opens it to the traditional combination of ideological cherry-picking and emotional misprision that encourages appropriation. Some readers quite literally make a book their own, treating it as part of their deep psychic contents as if every page has originated there prior to reading. Their reading seems to them to precede their reading. Authors are used to that. Harder to come to terms with is the very strong romantic who–able to manage neither their demon nor their own boundaries, and determined not to feel in hock to the wrong writer, now a haunting dimly but irritatingly perceived behind every turn of the appropriated text–is forced to reinvent not just the book but the author. In this supernatural scenario, the author becomes a figure of moral failure: someone who went wrong; someone who wrote one correct book but subsequently–perhaps in search of adventure, more probably out of weakness–took a wrong turn, made a fatal error, and spoiled all the rest. As a result, unforgiveably, the reader’s career in appropriative revision was equally spoilt, so that they are now forced to make a powerful corrective in the form of an internet review.

voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

“there are goats richer than us”

1491. Oakham, a fictional village just outside Bruton in Somerset, is a dump. Its villagers are a rowdy, bad-luck menagerie of “scrags and outcasts”. A row of poor harvests has devastated their investment in arable farming. Isolated in a bend of the river, they need a bridge to the outside world. The surrounding villages are getting rich on imported sugar and the new sugar products; they’re still getting rich on wool–while even in that established trade Oakham lags technologically, spinning with distaff and spindle, fulling the wool by foot. “There are goats richer than us,” John Reve, the local priest, ruefully admits. Then, a few days before the beginning of Lent, a corpse snags briefly on a fallen tree in the river, then vanishes… Read the rest of my review of Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind here.

a man walks into a bar

A man walks into a bar and orders a whisky, “Just an ordinary sort of Scotch.” He reads for half an hour, then gets up, and pays his bill in cash. Thereafter he returns once or twice a week. He drinks the Scotch, he reads a book. Kino the barman thinks perhaps that he’s a gangster. In the end that’s not really an issue; it’s Kino’s story we’re going to get anyway…

A cockroach wakes up to discover that he is Gregor Samsa. He is already forgetting he was a cockroach and when he tries to remember, “something like a black column of mosquitos” swirls up inside his head. He decides to give up on that. His first concern, he thinks, should be to get up off the bed, because lying on his back makes him vulnerable to attack by birds…

A woman’s ex-lover gets a phone call from her husband, who tells him she has committed suicide then hangs up. The lover has no idea where she lived after she left him, or who with. He can’t even imagine what her life was like, let alone find a way to reconnect with it. She’s the third woman he’s been with who killed herself…

Murakami’s Men Without Women are self-centred and lonely. They’re rather too puzzled, given their intelligence, as to why those two conditions go hand in hand. They present as tentative but act impulsively; expose histories founded on some early act of self-alienation; then, after jumping their lives inexpertly from one track to another (often from a low energy state to an even lower one), become tentative again at the last. Murakami–alert, relaxed, whimsical–watches them. He’ll tell the story in his own good time. My review for the Guardian here.

support your local baker

Lots of really good writing on the Saboteur Awards short & long lists, including The Night Visitors, Jenn Ashworth & Richard Hirst; Zombies Ate My Library, Tony White; An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press; Attrib & Other Stories, Eley Williams (also Influx). Eley Williams is having an excellent response to her short stories; and Influx are crowdfunding the next phase of their operation–you should support them if you can, along with all the other UK small presses. In the absence of mainstream publishing–which has been having a holiday from its responsibilities in this direction since the 80s–these heroes have taken on the risk- and work-laden task of finding and developing the new and the out-of-the-way, the smart, well-written, interesting stuff.

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.