the m john harrison blog

a man walks into a bar

A man walks into a bar and orders a whisky, “Just an ordinary sort of Scotch.” He reads for half an hour, then gets up, and pays his bill in cash. Thereafter he returns once or twice a week. He drinks the Scotch, he reads a book. Kino the barman thinks perhaps that he’s a gangster. In the end that’s not really an issue; it’s Kino’s story we’re going to get anyway…

A cockroach wakes up to discover that he is Gregor Samsa. He is already forgetting he was a cockroach and when he tries to remember, “something like a black column of mosquitos” swirls up inside his head. He decides to give up on that. His first concern, he thinks, should be to get up off the bed, because lying on his back makes him vulnerable to attack by birds…

A woman’s ex-lover gets a phone call from her husband, who tells him she has committed suicide then hangs up. The lover has no idea where she lived after she left him, or who with. He can’t even imagine what her life was like, let alone find a way to reconnect with it. She’s the third woman he’s been with who killed herself…

Murakami’s Men Without Women are self-centred and lonely. They’re rather too puzzled, given their intelligence, as to why those two conditions go hand in hand. They present as tentative but act impulsively; expose histories founded on some early act of self-alienation; then, after jumping their lives inexpertly from one track to another (often from a low energy state to an even lower one), become tentative again at the last. Murakami–alert, relaxed, whimsical–watches them. He’ll tell the story in his own good time. My review for the Guardian here.

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.

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

“It’s 1923. Lucy Marsh and her friend Winifred, mid-teenagers from an enclave of dying pubs and dead industries in north-east London, find themselves effectively sold into prostitution by their families. Once a week in Epping Forest they meet with and service four bizarrely wounded ex‑servicemen who have given arms, legs, hands and faces for their country in the recent world war. Lucy isn’t sure if they’re named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or if the characters in the story were named after them. The “funny men” seem as decent as they are damaged, puzzled to the point of inarticulacy by the things that have happened to them. But though they’re shy they know what they’ve lost – homes, wives, children, physical comfort, any sense of themselves as welcome in the society that sent them to fight – and they know what they want, at least from Lucy and Winifred.”

–Read the rest of my review of Xan Brooks’ dark & politically timely debut novel at the Guardian, here.

A wasp pushed itself into the room from behind the wooden blanket chest, as suddenly as if it had made itself from nothing. I looked behind the chest and found a ventilator daubed with layers of paint. Had the wasp blundered down the old chimney? It flew straight up into one of the skylights and sat on a bent nail, grooming its antennae. I tried to hit it with the local freesheet but I couldn’t reach that high; and anyway I couldn’t believe in it as a wasp. Long ago my writing filled up with characters who suspect that they don’t understand the world: not because the world is impossible to understand but because they have reached either the limits of their intelligence or the emotional boundaries that describe what their intelligence can be allowed to understand.

still love these stairs

I cleaned the stairs again this morning. I clean them often, mainly as an excuse to be on them, to be in close contact with them. I love to be abroad on these stairs. I love their proportions, their cool still air. They have a calmness which easily transmits itself to me. I’d live on these stairs if I could. Lock all the doors to the rooms, except the bathroom and the kitchen. Sleep on the top landing, work on the next one down. There’d be plenty of space. And plenty of light coming in through the long windows. I could keep my stuff in a blanket box. I love blanket boxes. I wouldn’t own much–a couple of pairs of jeans, underwear. There would just be room for a mattress on one floor, a desk and chair on the other. The outdoor stuff I could hang in the hall, that wouldn’t change; shoes I’d line up in the hall, too. I’m not sure whether I’d allow myself to leave the house, but I suppose I would have to. It’s not a matter of dealing with claustrophobia–because how could you suffer claustrophobia in all that space and light?–so much as doing the shopping, or getting exercise. I suppose I could have stuff delivered. If I absolutely had to go out, I’d try to confine myself to the garden as much as possible; and on wet days stare out of the landing windows at the hollyhocks bending in the rain. Hollyhocks are ridiculously tall. Strictly speaking, the garden isn’t quite where the stairs end. They make another turn and continue down into the cellars.

previously posted as “take the stairway to the stairs”, 2013

Monty Don speaks:

“The desert of the real may now break through. April
the cruellest month in the Baudrillardian garden.”

Monty Don with his old-looking dog
I’m overcome with love for them. See
How the dog stands by the wall, stares ahead.
Hermeneusis now seems so plausible–

Monty Don not solely Monty Don
His dog old/not old
His shed with its lurching kind of door
not wholly a shed

blueprint grey on grey

Forty seconds later, the main hold filled with light.

Internal comms tanked. Up in the control room, error signals jammed the boards. “Accept!” Liv Hula told the pilot connexion. Nothing. She stuffed the wires into her mouth by hand. “Akphept!” Too late. They were half in, half out when the connect halted. She pushed until she bled, but the system wouldn’t receive. Instead, Liv was snatched out of herself and began some long, identityless transit.

When things returned, she was seeing them via an exterior camera-swarm. Autorepair media raced along the brass-coloured hull like dust down a hot street. The stern assembly pulsed in and out of view. Outriggers, fusion pods, the tubby avocado-shaped bulge housing the Dynaflow drive: you could see the stars through them. From a source down there, where the holds and motors had once been, intermittent, washy-looking streams of plasma curved out into the dark, already an AU long and curved like scimitars. Liv felt sick. With the connector a lump of gold wire half-fused into the tissue of her soft palate, she was reduced to flicking switches.

“Antoyne ? Hello ?”

No one responded. Inside the ship, engine rooms, holds, companionways, ventilator shafts, stairwells, winked out one by one. Go through the wrong door, who knew what you’d see ? Liv was aware but blind. If you could blueprint grey on grey, that’s what filled the control room screens–a kind of luminous darkness where her spaceship had been. There was nothing there, but it had a strong sense of order.

“Jesus, Antoyne,” she said. “What are you fucking around with now ?”

–from Empty Space, 2013

on the pier

C Pierre & one other (seen here with knitted mermaid) on a recent fact-finding tour of south east coastal towns by a working party of the Architectonics Committee.

 

Photographs by CB Phillips.

edith plays

Late one evening six or seven weeks after Vic Serotonin’s disappearance, Edith Bonaventure squeezed into the costume she had worn at seventeen years of age and took herself to the gates of the Raintown corporate port. There, she opened an accordion case on the cement sidewalk, strapped on the instrument it contained, and began to play. Cruise ships from all the major lines were in, towering above her like a mobile downtown, their ablated, seared-looking hulls curving gently into the low cloudbase.

That time of night it was both raining and mist. The port halogens shone out blurry white globes, the pavement was black, slick, cut with transitory patterns of rickshaw wheels. Edith’s costume, stiff faux-satin a fierce maroon colour, still fitted; though it made her look a little stocky. Unaccustomed excitement reddened her cheeks and bare thighs. For once, Edith had left her father to his own devices. He could choose to fall out of bed or he could choose to stay there: this evening, she had informed him, that was up to him. It was everyone’s right to choose.

“Emil, you can watch the tour ships lift off, or maybe enjoy throwing up on yourself. Me, I am off to World of Today to pick up a man.”

“If it’s convenient, the two of you can bring me back a bottle–”

“You wish.”

“–then do what you do quietly for a change.”

Emil seemed well, perhaps he was getting over Vic’s defection. Why she told him such a lie, she didn’t know. All she was sure of, she wanted this other thing, she wanted to play. She had picked an accordion to match the outfit, maroon metalflake blends under a thick lacquer finish, with stamped chrome emblems of rockets and comets, which caught the spaceport light like mirrors. Sometimes, as a child, Edith had less wanted to own an instrument like this than to be one, to find herself curled up inside one like a tiny extra dimension of the music itself. Uniz played Abandonada. She played Tango Zen. She played that old New Nueva standard, A Anibal Lectur.

She was quick to merge with the night, to become part of its possibility for the paying customer. Rickshaw ads fluttered round her the colours of fuschia. The rickshaw girls called out requests as they passed; or stood a moment listening despite themselves, puzzled to be still for once, their tame breath issuing into the wet air. While up and down the rickshaw queues, the offworld women shivered–as the sad passionate tango songs made, in cheap but endlessly inventive language, their self-fulfilling prophecies of the entangledness and absurdity and febrile shortness of life–and pulled their furs around them. It was the briefest mal de debarquement.

Raintown! Its very name was like a bell, tolling them back to their true, complex selves! They laughed to wake up so far from where they started, so momentarily at a loss in the face of night and a new planet, yet so in control of the brand new experiences awaiting them there. In search of a gesture that could contain, acknowledge and celebrate this inconsistency, they threw money into the salmon pink silk interior of the fat, odd little busker’s open accordion case.

Sometimes the banknotes they threw floated around Edith herself like confetti at the marriage of earth and air, while she played I Am You, Motel Milongueros, and an uptempo version of Wendy del Muerte she learned in a pilot’s bar on Pumal Verde. She had no idea, really, why she had come to the gates. She was forty two years old. She was a black-haired woman with wide blunt hips who couldn’t afford to be anyone but the self she had chosen at eleven, and who, consequently, blushed up quickly under her olive skin. She was a woman of focus, a woman of whom men said to each other:

“You can’t blame Edith. Edith understands her own needs.”

When the stream of rickshaws had abated, and she felt she had had enough, she gathered up the money, packed the instrument in its case. Shuddered suddenly, struggling into her old wool coat. “The winds of memory,” she misquoted to herself, “approach this corner of my abandonment.” At least it wasn’t far along the sidestreets to the bar they called World of Today, by then, a little like herself, just a lighted yellow window from which all custom had fled. Edith pulled up a stool and counted her cash. It was more than she hoped, less than she imagined when she saw those fur coats, the cosmetics by Harvard and Picosecond, the Nicky Rivera luggage custom-stitched from alien leathers.

“Give me a bottle of Black Heart to go,” she suggested to the barkeep; then, “In fact why don’t I drink it here.”

“It’s your party,” the barkeep said.

 

–Nova Swing, 2006

lunch in margate

Two women were talking at the table next to Victoria’s. “To start with it seems quite new, and you think ‘how exciting!’ and everything,” one of them said. Her voice trailed away. “But then–” The other woman said something about raised paving and they talked over one another for a few sentences. “Anyway,” the first woman said, “I’ve rather given up on it now.” She thought for a moment then added: “I’ve done it in a sort of grey.” Outside the gallery, the art students trudged past, burdened by their need to be wearing the right thing at the right point in the cycle. Art has only two processes, Victoria thought: how to become perfect and how to smash the plate. How to just about cling on, she thought: that was for everything that couldn’t be art. That morning she had read a sign saying “Mannings Seafood” as “The Meaning of Seafood”.