the m john harrison blog

Category: writing

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.

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.

Enjoyed this. Made me wonder if Chuck Tingle is having such a benign effect on f/sf not just because he acted as a political releaser in a bad situation, but because his outsider art & brilliant idiolect, like his lively political tricksterism, bring him closer to the full-on act of imagination than the kind of fiction you’re used to finding inside the genre. Maybe people sense that & pick up some enthusiasm & creative velocity of their own from it. He certainly seems to have more in common with Blake or Dadd or Darger than with the f/sf professional whose imaginary, constrained from the beginning by what the industry needs, soon dries up.

the comfort of being eaten

Lovecraft’s set-ups are much more horrifying than the spaces he generates from them. The repetitive elements of the mythos act as a sort of refamiliarisation of that which has been deeply defamiliarised by the set-up. By the end of “Dreams in the Witch House”, for instance, a substitution has taken place. The human condition of being alive in a highly debatable space–a space the mathematical underpinnings of which seem to suggest something so undependable about our structures of perception that all we can do is struggle to reaffirm them–has been replaced by the condition of being alive in a threatening but clearly structured universe. The “imagined” replaces the real as a real. The new space isn’t entirely heimlich. It still trails some of the mystery implied by the set-up. But it has become describable, despite Lovecraft’s typical insistence that it isn’t. This is less an intensification of than a relief from the terror of the Witch House. In the same way, the moment the eponymous Colour Out of Space begins to act in a structured fashion, to feed itself and make its escape from our side of things, it ceases to undercut anthropocentric definitions and becomes a reassertion of them; the universe, though weird, is seen to operate on–or at least to be describable by–understandings we already possess. The discomfort of the unknowable is replaced by the comfort of being eaten by a creature with perfectly recognisable motives. Substitution of a false real is the disappointment of most generic fantasy: once the author has ushered us through an exhilaratingly scary liminal space, in which anything might be possible, new norms arrive and everything becomes ordinary again. The suggestion that things are not what they seem is always more exciting than the alternative provided. We wish we were back in the condition of not knowing. I do, anyway.

–reblogged from September 11, 2007

extinguished

Some loved writers you detach yourself from, perhaps quite gently, but determinedly too, because they’re like parents or teachers you want to outgrow. Some you drift away from then bump into them with a shock of recognition forty years later, buy all their books again & discover that in the interim a hefty but laughable scholarship has grown up around them. Others, it’s a grudge match & even after forty years you wouldn’t piss on them if you found them on fire in Waterstone’s Piccadilly–but then you do & burst into tears for no reason you can understand. The tears aren’t quite enough to put them out.

–reblogged from April 28, 2007