the m john harrison blog

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

there are memories of west london you can use in the new book & memories you can’t

It’s been raining in a steady, thoughtful way for about twenty four hours. There’s a pair of Converse in the paved area outside the kitchen door, not far from the bleaching wicker chair. They’re black. They’re well-used. They’re mine. One of them has tipped over on its side. It’s leaning on the other, while the other leans away from it in an appalled fashion. I can’t remember how they got there, although I do remember it was dark, also shouting, “And don’t come back.” Whatever our quarrel it’s forgotten, but they’re so wet now there doesn’t seem to be much point in fetching them in. Nothing looks shabbier than a pair of wet Converse. A bleaching wicker chair, propped up at one corner by two bricks, is one thing–it can look quite deliberate, quite arranged, cottagey if you like: but discarded shoes are quite another. You could’t pass those off at the Chelsea Flower Show as an eye-catching feature of the urban garden. Or maybe you could. Anyway, it’s an ASBO in Barnes, quick as you like. Wet Converse, for some reason, make me think of Andy Murray. To me he’s always looked as if he should be wearing long shorts & oversize unlaced baseball boots, in a three-frame comic or soft-drink advert from the late 80s. He has a puzzled look. Speaking of Barnes & tennis, I once saw Tim Henman in Sonny’s, just after his career was over.


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.

none of this

Empty items, delivered like ads but without content, begin to appear in your inbox. The first is entitled: You Got to Gas It Up & Go. You press all of the buttons. You leave the things behind. Within a week you’re on the run, on the turn, your little town’s Most Wanted. All you have left is your favourite undersize T shirt with its faded legend: I’m In Bits. Eventually you follow the lights out of town and towards the river. La Reve. Innocente. I Got No Dog In This Fight. Further out, they cluster under the bridges, singing opera they remember from a 1980s Cher vehicle. None of this is real.

from the Ionic temple to the Chinese bridge

I’m not here much at the moment because I’m working, but stay around for news, reviews & announcements, one of which might be quite weird, details of gigs, etc. Meanwhile here’s a bit of the new novel–

They missed one another in the car park, and again at both lakes. For half an hour Victoria hiked about in the woodland. Every little hill or valley looked like an idea of itself developed from some barely-disguised digital framework. The paths, soft for the time of year, draped themselves along the contour from the Ionic temple to the Chinese bridge and thence to the Orangery.

There was no sign of Alice in any of these places. Neither was she to be found in the Jack Mytton Gallery, lost in thought among the silver toilet services, woodcuts of rolling winter plough and lively contemporary bronzes of hares with exaggerated ears; and when Victoria did track her down, it was to the centre of the rose garden, where she lounged at the edge of the rectangular pool with her shoes off, her feet wet and her legs stretched out in front of her, gazing with a broad dreamy smile on her face at a wall covered in blush pink centifolias into which some kind of exotic clematis had woven itself. Behind her, a diminishing perspective of standard roses blazed like lamps; while a man in a tweed coat bent down to pat a box hedge as if congratulating it. “This is solid!” he called to someone they couldn’t see. “This’ll have been here a few years!” From two gardens away, one of the Childe peacocks screamed in glee.

Alice shaded her eyes and blnked up at Victoria “It reminds me of being seven,” she said, “when the whole world looked like this.” She sat up and dipped her feet in the water, watched intently the glittering eddies that whirled off across the surface. “Don’t you remember when everything looked like this?”

Victoria shrugged. “People always think that.” She could see her own face in the pool, of course; and beneath that something overgrown.

“Tell me you haven’t been wading about in here,” she said.

There was some suggestion that they should go and eat a pub meal down by the river, but the afternoon had left her tired and a little anxious. So she dropped the waitress off in town and went home, where she had baked beans on toast and wrote an email to Short.

“You never saw so many roses in one place! As for Alice, she has her own aesthetic, Rosie the Riveter meets Jaqueline Kennedy and they talk about everything in the world but men. I quite like that. Of course, she’s a bit of a mystery.” Admitting this to herself made her think for a moment before going on: “My new discovery is, the whole family used to live next door! I haven’t a clue who any of them are, really. But they knew my mum–or so they say. And here I am, alone in a new town. So in those circumstances what is a woman to do?

“Anyway,” she finished, “In the end I didn’t buy anything. I couldn’t make up my mind.”

Then she pressed Delete and went to sleep.

You can always come with me now, of course; or find me on Twitter, @mjohnharrison.