the m john harrison blog

Category: Uncategorized

R&R

It’s 2001. The central character of this hilarious, unremitting and cruelly intelligent satire of privilege decides to sleep a year away, in the hope that her life will have improved by the time she wakes up. Her plan works best–at least to start with–in the supply closet underneath the stairs at the New York “art” gallery where she works. “Every time I lay down in that supply closet I went straight into black emptiness, an infinite space of nothingness. I had no visions. I had no ideas.” She’s aware of the nothingness– “I was awake in the sleep, somehow. I felt good” –and it becomes her target state. Prescription drugs become its vector. Otessa Mossfegh’s observational skills are surgically accurate, her deployment of them produces effects on a spectrum from wry to savage; the picture she builds up is of a society so rotten to the core with privilege and self-involvement that it can only be ours. Expect a lot of ruffled feathers, projection and aggressive-defensive reaction to this book. Expect it to be brushed aside as unpleasant and needlessly negative–always a sign that the target’s been hit. Read my review of it at the Guardian, here.

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high ticket, obsessed & adrift

When we first see Laura Bow, she’s a lonely adolescent, self-harming with a lighted match. She’s talking by email with a friend in the US. She’s already a coder, already hooked by the urgency and excitement of a conversation that only exists between her and the computer. It’s the 1990s, and dial-up connections still make a noise like an animal in pain, and she’s just added another £150 to her parents’ phone bill. Thereafter, James Smythe slices her life for us at ten-year intervals. By 2007, things are out of hand: she’s a high-ticket professional, obsessed and simultaneously adrift–we see her in that classic old-fashioned hacker-movie style, running panickily down a line of servers in a Palo Alto corporate, trying to retrieve a deteriorating situation. 2017, she’s running down a street in Kuala Lumpur in the rain, thirty-seven years old now and pregnant. All this time she’s been building an artificial intelligence.

My review of James Smythe’s excellent AI thriller I Still Dream, in the Times Literary Supplement today (£).

on the verb

Some great chat the other night on Radio 3’s “The Verb”, with Bella Hardy, Kate Davis, Ben Myers and Simon Bainbridge, produced by Faith Lawrence & chaired by Ian McMillan. Enjoyed every minute, would ramble on helplessly about writing again. Also Kate’s poetry got me thinking about the exteriority of gritstone versus the interiority of limestone. The latter doesn’t get much of a look-in in Climbers, but provides the controlling metaphor of “Cave & Julia”.

my idea of nature writing

I bought a set of cheap cast iron dumbells. They arrived in the kind of plastic case you associate with home drilling equipment, which smelled strongly of whatever compound the manufacturer had used to keep the iron from rusting. It was an intrusive smell–not quite mineral, not quite organic–so, since I intended to store the weights in the case, I put it out on the balcony & left it to the cleansing rain of Suburb Barnes. It’s been out there ever since. Internally it has the shape of a set of dumbells with the weights affixed in increasing rather than decreasing size, & it opens flat. Within hours these graded rectangles were full of water. A few days later the squirrel turned up &, after an angry look around to make sure nobody wanted to make anything of it, took a drink. She’s been visiting the new pond daily ever since. If I keep still I can watch her suck it up, an act she performs with as much aggressive, whole-body physicality as she does everything else. Chemical residues don’t seem to have turned her into any more of a monster than she already was. I’ve had a lot of use out of the weights and now the squirrel has too. I was wondering: if I introduced a few small fish, would I perhaps attract a heron.

This was blogged as “country matters”, January 9, 2013

photos Cath Phillips

entangled

insects, lawnmowers, dogs. hot cars on the rolling road, running up to 5000rpm then going abruptly off the cliff’s edge into silence. “How do!” “How do!” “How do!” in the street. hot cars in the street, rumbling & banging on the over-run as they square up for the roundabout. the rag & bone man’s cry, which isn’t a cry at all but a four-note bugle call slowed to a gurgle by some kind of ancient ice cream van sound system and which I have been failing to write this five years. sun on the lawn. baked walls. sun in the street. beyonce in hot cars. washing machines that grind away as if at stones. light aircraft nauseously repeat the same pattern across the breadth of this May afternoon. flashes of light from windscreens. “How do!” at the greengrocer’s. “How do!” outside the pub. None of these things are happening in memories from being eight years old except one–light flashing off shallow rippling water in partial roadside shade–and yet they somehow all are.

the shape of the ruins

Bombings, shootings, riots, betrayal, misrepresentation, theft of evidence and, above all, conspiracy: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Shape of the Ruins (translated by Anne McLean) contains in 500 pages more plot, more mystery, more action than five ordinary novels. The events it confronts are so complex–so chaotic–that it can’t, in a sense, be reviewed: the only true way to review the Uribe and Gaitan killings, in their national, historical and literary setting, would be to study for a decade or two, then write a further 500 page overview, which would include all the previous views on which Vasquez draws. The reviewer would, in fact–and this is perhaps Vasquez’s point–have to give in to the paranoid, Borgesian terraced-reality of it all, and begin the lonely, obsessive and probably fruitless process of rearranging what Vasquez memorably calls “stickers in a football album”. Evidently there wasn’t time to do that. So here’s my review of the novel, as a deeply enjoyable novel rather than a historical, political or criminal investigation, in the Guardian…

a recent history of bread

In the light of recent events in Edinburgh, it might be worth repeating this:

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.

Originally blogged in March last year.

edge hill

You Should Come With Me Now has been longlisted for The 2018 Edge Hill Prize. This is quite an extraordinary thing.

Congratulations to everyone on the list: Kelly Creighton – Bank Holiday Hurricane (Doire Press); Agnieszka Dale – Fox Season (Jantar Publishing); Lucy Durneen – Wild Gestures (MidnightSun Publishing); Tessa Hadley – Bad Dreams (Penguin); Sarah Hall – Madame Zero (Faber & Faber); David Hayden — Darker with the Lights On (Little Island Press); James Kelman – That was a Shiver (Canongate); Alison MacLeod – All the Beloved Ghosts (Bloomsbury); Sean O’Reilly – Levitation (Stinging Fly Press); Adam O’Riordan – The Burning Ground (Bloomsbury); Tom Rachman – Basket Of Deplorables (Riverrun); Leone Ross – Come Let us Sing Anyway (Peepal Tree Press); Nicholas Royle – Ornithology (Confingo); Eley Williams – Attrib (Influx Press). So many small press & independent books here: beautifully & honestly made, beautifully packaged, covers you’d kill for!

Thanks to everyone–including Edge Hill–who has supported & worked on behalf of the short story as a form. Thanks to everyone who supported YSCWMN despite its unlikelihood as a publishing proposition, especially everyone at Comma Press; and to everyone supporting further adventures of mine in these kinds of directions. Sorry I’m not here much at the moment: I’m working hard on the new novel. Stay tuned for further news, & for news about an outrageous, exciting & purely unexpected new project.

You Should Come With Me Now

any new but the new

The commentariat limits the new to the new it already knows: the only new it will acknowledge is the new predicted and confirmed by its own discourse. The new it doesn’t know has been staring any given commentariat in the face for a decade, but the commentariat pays no attention. The new the commentariat doesn’t know pays the commentariat no attention in return, but gets on with being what it is. That’s where science fiction, with its knack for predicting the present, can sometimes help. The best science fiction seems to drag the present into some sort of consciousness of itself. It seems to be ahead of the times because the times are always behind themselves. But science fiction must never accept the temptation to become a commentariat in itself, or by definition it will start to fail to recognise any new but the new that its internal discourse predicts & confirms.

Oh, wait…

Blogged as “a tree falls in a forest” in 2012, when the penny was beginning to drop