the m john harrison blog

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“Such an existence demands a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products. It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life.” Debord, Comments On the Society of the Spectacle, 1998.

the cat

“I hate the noise saucepans make,” Victoria told the cat. “People always know you’re at home when they hear the saucepans clanging about in the kitchen.”

The cat stared up at her.

“You don’t say much, do you?” she said.

Later she went out to the Spar and bought two tins of catfood.

“We’ll try you on this,” she said. “But if you get expensive, off you go.” After it had eaten and licked around its face a bit, she picked it up and took it to the back door. “And out you go at night,” she said.

The cat miaowed at the door until she let it back in.

Originally published as Victoria Adopts, 2015

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“Fuck off, I’ll fucking kill you.” Then a pause. Then: “I will fucking kill you.” And: “The fucking lot of you. You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.” Banal threats rendered pathetic by their own resonance in the deserted street. & of course there was always plenty of laughter and squealing, broken bits of karaoke. Among all these cries, we sometimes heard a sound with something of the interrogative in it, & something of a challenge, but also something of an attempt to attract attention; though it was, in the end, somehow too detached and too practiced to be any of those things. It was like the human version of a mechanical bird call, repeated over and over again, given rhythm by a pauses a different length to the cry itself. It was mechanical but really quite communicative. We heard it night after night, just down the road, we thought, from one of the bars; or in the street outside one of the bars. We stuck our heads out of the door but saw nothing. We walked down the street looking in one place or another, but all we heard from inside was laughter. It was always further away. Only when we had closed the front door behind us would it start up again, and then neither immediately nor predictably.

Originally published as “night after night”, 2015

shoebox lives

Found material is a private experience. If I use it I try not to draw narrative conclusions from it. It’s not there to provide “story”. The reader doesn’t need my idea of what happened. I don’t need the reader’s–that would be a crude intrusion into someone else’s fantasies. But there’s more. We both know how interpretations spin away from found material, but we also recognise that choosing one of them breaks “history” out of its quantum state and turns it into a lurching caricature, a bad guess, a sentimentalised drawing of an event in someone else’s life. Found material might be “evidence” –might even be a direct, indexical sign of a thing that happened–but the thing that happened, the life that contained it, can’t be reassembled, or back-engineered into existence. It’s only what it is now: if you try to glue the fragments together with the sentiments “evoked” in you, all you will have is a golem. All you’ve done is bully the mud into a shape that satisfies your needs. But avoid interpretation as determinedly as you can, and you have a metaphor for the way we encounter not just the past but the present: lives as the most tentative assemblages; interactions in your own life as partially interpretable fragments, fading images, achieving the condition of conversations overheard on the tops of buses, postcards from the past even as they happen.

Originally published 2018

first & last

“Tell us about your first day at something,” the WordPress blank page urges. As usual, nothing comes to mind. My so-called memoir is predicated on this understanding of myself & dedicated as a consequence to “everybody who couldn’t think what to say”.

I can tell you, in case you didn’t know, that it’s nearly Christmas & that–apart from the obvious one, arrived at collectively with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and delivered as a longlist, a shortlist, then a winner–I haven’t made any kind of Best of the Year list this year, a year in which I might be said to have read quite a few books. But if you’re looking for last minute presents for certain kinds of reader, let me recommend: (1) Sara Baume’s quiet, charming Seven Steeples; (2) its defining or metaphysical opposite, the long, Gothic Cormac McCarthy double-header The Passenger/Stella Maris (which is not, as many would have it, a “muddle “or an “old man’s book”, or “too mathy”, or any of those things, but a desperately clever suite of positions on the wispiness of what we call reality); and (3) the best book of any sort I’ve read in the last five years or so–Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory.

Meanwhile, next door, perhaps in anticipation of the coming season or perhaps to forget it, they’re listening to Vera Lynn-like music out of which emerges every so often a faint burst of 1940s dialogue–British, actors’ posh, somebody’s idea of how aristocratic ducks would talk–and I’m not sure whether they’re watching a film or if this is actually a physics condition of their kitchen.

Too many boxes, too many wires, too many books on the floor, too many bits of paper you don’t feel you can get rid of yet. Too many old computers. Too many things you meant to do three years ago & now they’re always in the way of thinking about the things you need to do today. They’re down there in the hall, they used to be objects but now they’re abject, the remains of all deferred decisions, and they’re there for you now, waiting to catch at your foot in a small room while you’re desperate to be thinking about something else. So many old clothes, on rails or hanging off the back of doors, offering the same old used to be, until you’re compelled very suddenly to cut off large amounts of yr beard & thank god for soup, toast & a bit of sunshine.

journal entry

“I realised instantly that this book mustn’t be about recapture. It mustn’t be about getting those memories out of storage and forging a new relationship with them. Nor is it, actually, about forcing them to stay in there. So what is it about? Not retrieval. It’s about leaving–leaving behind–& abjection, in parallel with (not opposition to) the return of the repressed. We’re supposed to care about the loss of the past, we’re supposed to fear/disapprove/cure/correct/solve/resolve. But what if you don’t? What if you write about welcoming the return of the repressed? That is, welcoming the hallucinatory, the neurotic, the compulsive? You could structure this by having a complete separation between what was repressed and what returns. No guesses. No diagnoses. Or make a list of what memory plots always handle and strip it out. Nothing about the need to retrieve, come to terms with, salvage, work through, understand or otherwise deal with repressed memories. An acceptance of what can be remembered. An incuriosity about what can’t. Above all, memory as image rather than narrative (or component of narrative), uninterpetable except as the image itself. & the return of the repressed welcomed as the basis of other texts, not of the memoir.”

And then: “True nostalgia is sudden, instant, cruel, real, the unstructured flash, the sense of a space whose emotional architecture is vast but by now unknowable. True retrospection is loss, not gain.”

variation on a theme

Around the self-storage office I used to see a man called Doug. Doug was in his early thirties. He had an intense, nervous look. At the same time he seemed pleased with himself.

To start with I used to wonder what relationship he had with Alice, the woman behind the counter. What was between these two? Doug was in awe of Alice somehow, but all it had done was make him bitchy.

They were involved in something long ago, I used to think to myself, and Doug lost out. She knows something he doesn’t, though Doug wants to believe it’s the other way around. He’s weaker than her. He has folded an image of her into expectations of life he now recognises–although he won’t admit it–to have been bizarrely optimistic.

To start with that was what I thought. It was a well worked out narrative, and might even have been true; but by the end, that didn’t matter.

FYI

A selection of recent interviews, etc–

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/goldsmiths-prize/2020/11/m-john-harrison-number-novels-don-t-sit-well-their-genre-origin

https://litinglesa.wordpress.com/2019/12/14/derribando-los-pilares-de-la-ficcion-una-entrevista-con-m-john-harrison/ (Scroll down for the English version, it’s worth it.)

http://notesforthecurious.com/grave-goods-m-john-harrison/

https://writersrebel.com/read-qa-with-m-john-harrison/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2017/nov/21/jennifer-egan-and-m-john-harrison-books-podcast

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/2-5-m-john-harrison-and-landscape-in-british-sff-writing/id1450808051?i=1000491347926

https://apersonalanthology.com/category/m-john-harrison-as-writer/

Walking between the old squatter cottages in The Jitties–in cold air and near dark, through mizzling rain–I hear a voice coming from a parked car. It’s American, intimate yet resonant, penetrating, conscious of an audience, and it’s reading from someone’s new novel, one of those clever first person deliveries designed to imply a listener in the text. There’s no driver in the car. There’s no one in the car at all. Its engine is running, it’s stopped at an angle at a corner in a billow of its own smoke. I walk past and go home thinking how much I’d like to win that Radio Four lottery and have my new book read that way, loudly but personably, to an empty lane at the end of November.

Crossposted from Mastodon