the m john harrison blog

an oblique move towards making something new out of things I already have

So the Map Boy builds a horse-drawn caravan by scaling-up the plans for a model. He travels round Britain in the caravan for a decade, with his dog, doing agricultural work. When the dog dies he buries it in the wood, & makes for it out of Horsham stone a monument like a low curved wall, where it rests for twelve months before badgers & foxes dig it up & eat it.

The Map Boy haunts the wood. He shifts easily between its layers of time. He knows where everything is, he knows what you can eat; there are endless ways you can make a fire. He won’t get another dog. All around him, Coulsdon is haemorrhaging its Jaguars into the surrounding tissues of Redhill, Reigate and Dorking, which flush and bruise suddenly under the strain. Oh, Reigate and Banstead in the sunshine! Woods and flint-faced garden walls! Further south, new shapes move in the woods as you drive past–earth caked in the roots of fallen trees to make the silhouettes of aurochs and wild boar in the medieval light. Later the seafront floats between the grey water and a sky deep stratospheric blue, between each side of the century, real gold, buildings biscuit and cream, suspended there in the horizontal sunlight–which also falls on the seaward side of the waves before they break on the beach, discovering in the low muddy swell by the stanchions of the pier two frozen-looking surfers in wetsuits. He is noting everything. A designer moon, a meticulous sliver in a sky hardly darker than this afternoon’s!

Or Leicestershire and Warwickshire, he’s telling us now. Mist thickening out of the Charnwood copses. Closer to, you can feel the water vapour in the air, but it’s invisible except as a guess until it polarises some BMW’s halogen light & startles briefly with little elusive blue wisps & flickers. So quick & faint you can never be sure they’re real. I was born near there, he will admit, if you press him, but I never saw anything like that before. Look, I’m trying to explain to you how the small fields used to fill up with white mist like industrial separation tanks, or how the late afternoon sun in November turned the air pinky gold–not the sky, the air itself–in moments of kitsch heartbreak from a thirty-years-yet-unwritten romance. There’s a constant, constantly-renewed sense of immanence in those landscapes. In the 1950s they had one sort of magic; now, just when you’d think all magic had evaporated, they discover another.

It’s like the Map Boy, when he talks the night away this way, is trying to educate us how to see everything as objective correlative. Everything interpretable in some strong Ballardian sense, dune fields as much as Hilton balconies. Your own hand in certain lights. & in uncertain lights a line of railway sleepers or sleeping women who (like Delvaux, or Henry Moore tube dwellers) explain something unknowable, something that remains unexplained even in the gesture of offering. Everything an earnest, he tells us, a guarantee, both of itself & something else. Immanence: the constant act of interpreting things that weren’t made. The Map Boy says, it’s like the world is a difficult painting of something. It’s the understanding of stuff not directly–not even indirectly, not even one time removed–but by the index of something that might, if you look at it in the right light, be evidence of the possibility of evidence. How do you understand a thing by its shadow when you don’t even know how shadows are thrown?

If you think you can answer that question, the Map Boy says, if you think the need to answer is implied by me asking, you are not getting this & we may have a problem. It’s so clear to him! Someone doesn’t even know how shadows are thrown, how beautiful is that? It is very beautiful indeed.

the Goldsmiths

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again won the Goldsmiths Prize, an amazing result in a field of such strength.

I’d like to thank everyone involved–the panel, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Will Eaves, Chris Power, and Frances Wilson their chair of judges; all the brilliant writers on the shortlist, a wide-ranging collection of talent and ambition, any one of whom I’d be delighted to encounter as a reviewer; the New Statesman whose sponsorship of the award is so vital; the Goldsmiths team, Tim Parnell, Olivia Franchini and Erica Wagner, who–in the face of lockdown limitations, and denied the party they felt we all deserved–made such a success of of the Zoom-based celebrations.

An idiosyncratic novel is always a difficult sell inside the industry, which is also generally suspicious of authors with a determined idea of how their work should be presented and to whom. That’s why prizes like the Goldsmiths are so important. This time my case has been made for me, suddenly and with considerable elegance. I’m glad, because after you’re 60, you may remain in some way determined to break the rules; but the effort of having to constantly explain or excuse yourself can be tiring.

It’s a cliche that no one writes a book, or has a life in books, on their own. The list of people I have to thank for the friendship, the emotional and professional support, the unfailing intellectual generosity that scaffolded the writing of The Sunken Land, is endless. But they know who they are, and I’m planning to thank them privately, in real life, one by one, as soon as that becomes possible again.

nothing to see here

From the start, mine had been less a clinamen than a wrecking project and as such unattractive to the audience. But I still didn’t want to see it misread as something it wasn’t and corrected marketward. I could have marketised it myself if I’d been interested. The New Weird was contested territory from the start. Everyone wanted a slice, Babel ensued … My longterm experience, from New Worlds and elsewhere, is that the best move in those circumstances is to maintain your distance, take care of your core ideas and aims, make sure you know the exact difference between what you do and anything else that’s going on, and move along quietly to the next thing.

visions two

There are still a few copies left of Mathieu Triay’s beautifully-produced VISIONS 2. In the first issue of the magazine, link-pieces between the themed stories were provided by an AI. For VISIONS 2, I attempted to do the same job, using only a goose quill and ink I made from an old family recipe. How I fared compared to the machine, you’ll have to decide for yourself. The ten microfictional fragments add up, eventually, to a single piece, complementing the other fiction & nonfiction in the magazine.

as if by magic

Magic, communal imaginative baptism and immersive storytelling will explain, solve and salve everything in a life. One thing I look forward to after the virus is the collapse of that complex of ideas–if only because the rediscovery of the real may, paradoxically, by sidelining acts of imagination, reinvigorate and repurpose them. For forty years or so, fantasy made itself the frame through which everything else was visualised and organised. It became the uncontested lingua franca of economics, advertising, media, corporate environmental exploitation and politics; it informed the edutainment of the toddlers who grew into the conspiracy theorists who are now helping to dissolve civil society. It led to the pure Randista-manipulated fantasy in which we’re condemned to live. A bit of fantasy makes life bearable; it can be helpful in making metaphors; but once it becomes your explanatory framework, you are addicted. One narrative’s too many, a million aren’t enough. Someone’s always out there with the Unicorn Brand ice cream van, waiting to take your money and top you up. You’d think that imaginative writers were ideally placed to identify and engage this abuse of their metier–reaffirm and strengthen the distinction between the real and the fantastic to the benefit of both–but somehow they don’t.

“Every newly empowered demographic selects its typical physiology and body-language, the phenotype which will do best under the new conditions. Everyone is sensitised, nervous, ready to take advantage or regret that their own faces don’t fit. For a few weeks, as he settled into his new surroundings, Shaw wandered an uncanny valley filled with bad suits, Edwardian-looking overcoats, sudden gurning smiles and a cheerful vigour which contested with rubbery, fishlike faces and curious hand-movements. It was like living among aliens.” —The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.

With fellow Goldsmiths Prize shortlistee Monique Roffey, this time last year at the XR Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square–

the news

2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. I’m delighted to find myself on it with The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, in the company of such inventive & exciting novelists; & I’m going to need to thank a lot of people, starting with everyone who’s supported me here over the last decade or so. You know who you are. It’s been an eerie, transitional period for me as a writer. I don’t see an end to that now, because–whatever the New Statesman says in its oddly snobbish age- and genre-obsessed announcement–I feel more like a twenty five year old than I did when I was twenty five. The Sunken Land has its own page, here, and you can buy it from all your trusted outlets. Look out for further reviews–including Nina Allan in the LARB & one from the TLS. And news of a new book.

searching under the streetlamp

We can’t help wondering: is the amateur detective rehearsing her own life or actually using it as a model for the crime? Who is she keeping things from–us, or herself? What does she know that she isn’t telling? What doesn’t she know she knows? Is some loop of the epistemic bowel about to split and deluge not just the reader but the narrator? From the off there’s nothing solid here, except a piece of paper with some writing on it, found in the woods while the dog is walked. It could be evidence of something. In and of itself, it isn’t evidence of anything: it’s less than hearsay, it has no provable connection so far to anything in the world. Exactly as it is, with its constant slippage between imaginary events and misinterpretations of real ones–all the delusional threats (the bland police officer, the storekeeper with the shot-up face), the nightmares, the odd behaviour that isn’t–Ottessa Moshfegh’s blackly comic examination of the detective story would make a superb Netflix series. The detective is in her eighties. She never gets further than a quarter of a mile into the pinewoods before a shortness of breath sets in. She suspects an allergen. We suspect some kind of innate oppressiveness, external or internal–the blanket mood of a streaming thriller, French, in which the trees mean something but you’re not sure what because you don’t quite feel you can trust whoever translated the subtitles. I loved it. My review of Death In Her Hands at the TLS, on paper or online here (£).

rue belle image

I crossed the Loire at Pont Aristide Briand & walked downstream. The water was muddy & tidal-looking. I saw an old fashioned boat, painted white. I saw a magpie fly up into a tree. I looked into the sunlight where it dissolved the Rue Alain Barbe Torte & made the world seem both ended & endless. There were yellow leaves everywhere. I felt free. I felt like 1948 in my denim jacket, ready to write what I saw. I saw the neat cobbles & the little cars & the neat French all around. I crossed back by the new metal footbridge. By the river the sun was all over the wet morning air; but in the town the streets were dark and chilly. I walked down the Rue d’Alger to Notre Dame de Son Port, a church with an impressive dome. I observed that there is a lot of dog shit in Nantes, much of it of distinct colours, brick red, yellow ochre, autumn tints. A whole street smelled of petrol. Every street I looked down seemed more interesting than the one I was on. I looked up at the sign “Rue Belle Image” & thought of you. Eventually I entered a cul de sac, with fallen-down walls and buildings that leaned in towards one another, which narrowed to an alley. A cat came out on to the cobbles in the sun to say hello. 10:30 am next morning, it was fog. The aeroplane spent some time waddling to and fro across the airfield like a pregnant duck. We might have been in Britain already: the fields, the little copses brown with autumn and soaked with dew. Finally the duck lurches upwards and the fog proves to be a thin, Atlantic layer. It sprays off the wing like water from a car tyre. We’re in the light that awaits everyone, the real weather of the world.

People strive to preserve the truth of the observed experience, but that’s what locks the material away from you.