the m john harrison blog

Category: the book

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.

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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.

a word here & there

I wondered what all this was going to mean for the book. I spent yesterday reading back everything including the notes and decided there was no need to worry. Given that it’s about someone so alienated, inturned and obsessed by his own descent that he simply fails to see, let alone understand, the things that are going on around him, I decided I didn’t have to change more than a word here and there. “That was the Brexit summer” will do just as well as “That was the Ukip summer”, if not better.

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”.)

victoria & the multiplication of selves (email)

“Alex, of course I wasn’t obsessed by the real you. Of course I was obsessed with a fantasy. But I always knew that. It was a story I told. It was a kind of entertainment, conscious but immersive. What I’ve only just discovered is that I was also obsessed by a fantasy of me. That one wasn’t so conscious! That one was rather too immersive! But now I’ve applied to myself the clear vision you believe I wasn’t applying to you, I find that the me I really am wasn’t really interested in either of us. I don’t know where that leaves the you you really are.”

victoria’s gift

They met at a pub on King Street Hammersmith then ate tandoori trout at one of the new upmarket Indians just along from the Premier Hotel. Victoria seemed nervous.

“How do you like my hair?” she said.

Thinned out in some way, centre-parted, chopped off with a kind of calculated incompetence a little above the jawline, it clung lankly to the sides of her face and head, curling out tiredly at the ends. “Neo-bluestocking,” she said. “Very effective from certain angles, though I can see you don’t think so.” Over the evening she drank a bottle of house red– “Nothing to see here. No change here” –and talked about her car. Alex said he would stick to beer. When he said he wasn’t much of a driver, she looked down at the charred tails and dyed red flesh of the remains of their meal, the filmy bones like the fossil imprint of a leaf, and said, “Who is? It’s not really about driving. I go to the coast a lot now.” She laughed and made confused steering wheel motions. “Up and down. Hastings and Rodean. Very slowly. Dungeness, of course.” Then: “I think I’ve grown out of London.” And finally: “I love the little spines of these fishes, don’t you?”

“All I see,” said Alex, “is my dinner.”

He then admitted: “I was in a bit of a state when we last met.”

“You aren’t all that much improved.” She laughed at his expression. “Come on! I should talk! I don’t believe I’ve been entirely sane since I was thirteen–”

Alex filled her glass again. “Is that when you saw the corpse?” he said, hopefully.

“–although I did have a moment of clarity in a sauna in about 2005.” She stared around the restaurant as if expecting to see someone she knew. “Eventually you take what you can get where that’s concerned. You have to feel you’re steadying down.”

“There’s some value to that,” Alex agreed, though he had no idea what she was talking about.

“Actually, I’m not even sure it should be called clarity,” she said.

She was too drunk to drive. They left the car where she had parked it in Hammersmith and walked back to 17 Wharf Terrace along the river. There, she poked around his room as if she was out for a bargain in used furntiure. “The bed’s a bit small,” she said, looking at him brightly. Picking through his books, she found a John Fowles; made a face. “You can’t like any of his stuff. Not really.” Then: “And is this the famous shared wall!” She tapped with one knuckle, as if sounding the ancient plaster for its weaknesses. She put her ear to it. “He seems quite quiet now, your unknown nemesis.” Alex found something else they could drink–the end of a litre of Absolut so old the shoulders of the bottle were sticky with all the condensed grit airs of London–and, sitting on the edge of the bed, unwrapped the housewarming present. “Look at that!” she said, as if their roles were reversed and he had given it to her. It was made of silver, with an articulated body five or six inches long and hinged sidefins. “It’s Peruvian,” she said. “It’s a fish. It’s quite old.”

Alex weighed the fish in his hand, moved one of the fins cautiously. Its scales were tarnished and cold. “Hi fish,” he said.

“See,” Victoria said. “You like it. You like it already.”

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

the tale I tell myself

A sort of romance between vague people. Disconnected, surreal. End product of the liquid moderne not as it idealises itself but as it plays out on the ground. Two “lives”, interleaved transparent sets of events, never quite in themselves stories. First one floating on top then the other, so that as you see through one to the other they seem to be linked & completing (to the degree that completion has any meaning in the context). Underneath that the implication of some complex archaic interaction or myth, a default condition or haunting of the past & present which can only point to the future. Glimpses of a past & a future, also mysteriously imbricated, but even more see-through.

empty space again

Light & Nova Swing were about going inside something–maybe yourself–& not coming out again. Empty Space seems to be about going inside then coming back so changed you might as well have been (& indeed might well have been) something else all along. Several kinds of “going inside” are depicted. In some cases going inside is seen as a defeat, retreat or sudden loss of a handhold on the world; in others a transformational acceptance of weirdness, the existential value of which can’t be experienced or measured by the observer.

the book (3)

Is this a good time to say that I’ve changed the title ?

I’m going to call it Empty Space, which comes from the much-quoted

    “No point is more central than this, that empty space is not empty. It is the seat of the most violent physics.” –John Wheeler.

but also refers to the emptiness of the culture in which the characters live & the value-shaped gap in the lives of most of them.

Empty Space was the working title for Light. It will probably be the overall 3-volume title too.