the m john harrison blog

Category: writing

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.

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fleamarket ontologies

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. It 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.

You Should Come With Me Now

this book

The only working rule on this book just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. The other two rules are, “Always flatten it off,” which doesn’t mean it will come out flat, only that it won’t be winning any trophies at the Crufts of the imagination; and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter, an editor once told me, over lunch in a not very good restaurant (predictably an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” I thought that astonishingly perceptive until I realised that it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.

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.

I couldn’t wait to get away

Debilitatingly superficial content massively over-invested with meaning by the acting & direction; grinding earnestness about issues that make you shrug, or which can exist solely in the manufactured situations of the text; the utter, controlling pseudo-martyrdom of the central character. Constant reference to story and story-telling which makes you think one minute it’s a parody of @GuyInYourMFA and the next that it is actually being piped into your head direct from a combined group therapy session & writing workshop. I’ve never watched anything working so hard to position the narcissistic viewer along with the narcissistic writer at the heart of the text; or been so relieved to see anything end.

what I’m after here

Something the reader can only navigate with a kind of emotional sonar. I mean, a space distancing enough to be reverberant, remote-feeling enough to be on the astral plane. (You have to imagine those last two words as intoned by Jonathan Richman in the eponymous song.) So the landscape of the book wants to be a big empty yet resonant emotional space in which the characters don’t even know they’ve lost their orientation. There’s some kind of alien invasion or hauntological action going on in there, but even that’s at one remove or maybe two. The space is loaded but as the reader you don’t know how to complete it. You don’t know what your side of the bargain is. It would be easier if you thought the characters knew the right kinds of things about themselves, but they so very clearly don’t. Meanwhile, the pings come back from emotional structures–Big Dumb Objects–so very far away you can’t tell them from lightweight passing concerns.

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

some falls

Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on

My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.