the m john harrison blog

Category: ghosts

pregnant again

Recently began to read Genet again. I couldn’t say why, except that after fifty years he claimed suddenly, from his jail cell Shangri La, that he had something to do with the new book; & more, that he’d already had something to do with the last three. I really don’t get that. But there it is– “Read me now! read me again!”, a voice from a distance, from the dead. Quite a luxurious experience, I have to say, although it makes me wonder how I could have been so sure I’d read him back then–how on earth I could have convinced myself I’d understood more than a fraction of him when I was 21 & at that time about twelve years old. I had no idea what he was offering. Whatever he’s trying to communicate now isn’t coming through yet; neither am I resolving the increased sense I have that there are other survivors from those days in it with him. In it with him yet having so little in common with him or each other that only grammar could ever hold them together in a sentence. These people. These other writers. Vision, content, timbre, whatever:  I am, at this point, the only clue to their commonality. I won’t get them, or my book, until I get why. Maybe it’s just a whim. Maybe I’m just visibly pregnant & want to eat strange meals.

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lunch in margate

Two women were talking at the table next to Victoria’s. “To start with it seems quite new, and you think ‘how exciting!’ and everything,” one of them said. Her voice trailed away. “But then–” The other woman said something about raised paving and they talked over one another for a few sentences. “Anyway,” the first woman said, “I’ve rather given up on it now.” She thought for a moment then added: “I’ve done it in a sort of grey.” Outside the gallery, the art students trudged past, burdened by their need to be wearing the right thing at the right point in the cycle. Art has only two processes, Victoria thought: how to become perfect and how to smash the plate. How to just about cling on, she thought: that was for everything that couldn’t be art. That morning she had read a sign saying “Mannings Seafood” as “The Meaning of Seafood”.

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.

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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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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.

“Night Moves was Penn’s point of turning, his last carefully structured work, a strong and bitter film, whose bitterness emerges from an anxiety and from a loneliness that exists as a given, rather than a loneliness fought against, a fight that marks most of Penn’s best work. Night Moves is a film of impotence and despair…”

–Robert Kolker, The Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman

This character wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had a life. He had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

(First published last June as “Any Port In a Storm”.)

another little taste

Later, pissing off the end of one of the abandoned barges upstream, invisible among the tall weeds and strengthless-looking bushes that grew on every square foot of its decaying deck, he thought he heard something behind him. There were two or three confused movements further along the hull, followed by a fluttering or rustling just outside his sightlines; then a quiet splash as if something had slipped furtively into the river. He waited for ripples but they didn’t show. He leaned out to look up and down the reach. Nothing: the surface of the river was compact and burnished all the way to Kew Bridge, where the piers split it into whorls and eddies which streamed off towards Barnes.

He zipped up and pushed his way back anxiously towards the land through the vegetation. In there, among recent shoots and withered induviae, everything felt dry and at the same time rotted to a wafer. Small cream moths floated up from among the faded lager cans and shredded plastic bags. A fibrous mulch was replacing the old deck; but you could still feel the decaying timbers flex beneath. Anything, he thought, could be living in all that warm, dense, airless, puzzling growth.

That lunchtime, for a change, he walked downstream to Strand-on-the-Green and ate a hamburger sitting outside a pub called The City Barge while middle-aged women in yoga pants by Liquido and Spiritual Gangster exercised their miniature dogs between him and the river. He felt as if he was sick of all that side of things. The tide had turned. The water was beginning to slacken and churn. The previous week’s bad weather had folded itself away into heat and humidity, but remained immanent somehow in the dull brassy glare that lay across the city. Everything was dusty again, but the sky could always open. The worst of July, the foretaste of August. Midstream, Oliver’s Island looked like a Victorian dreadnought abandoned in the quivering light, its slabby iron plates somehow turned to stone.

I would never have to fake my own death, he found himself thinking. I’ve all but vanished already. Part of him welcomed that. Another part, larger but so thinly distributed across his personality that it seemed invisible, panicked soundlessly on a twenty four hour schedule.

who’s dead & who’s alive

Disconnected memories. Uncertainty of events and entities in their “relationship” with reality. The author positioned like Maxwell’s demon, feeling able to claim that this is the inside & that is the outside (the conscious & unconscious, the forgotten & remembered, the admissible & the inadmissible). Calculatedly inefficient filters will be placed at points of transition represented as boundaries and edgelands. The hiatus or glitch, the dropped catch or stitch between the living & the written.

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