the m john harrison blog

first & last

“Tell us about your first day at something,” the WordPress blank page urges. As usual, nothing comes to mind. My so-called memoir is predicated on this understanding of myself & dedicated as a consequence to “everybody who couldn’t think what to say”.

I can tell you, in case you didn’t know, that it’s nearly Christmas & that–apart from the obvious one, arrived at collectively with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and delivered as a longlist, a shortlist, then a winner–I haven’t made any kind of Best of the Year list this year, a year in which I might be said to have read quite a few books. But if you’re looking for last minute presents for certain kinds of reader, let me recommend: (1) Sara Baume’s quiet, charming Seven Steeples; (2) its defining or metaphysical opposite, the long, Gothic Cormac McCarthy double-header The Passenger/Stella Maris (which is not, as many would have it, a “muddle “or an “old man’s book”, or “too mathy”, or any of those things, but a desperately clever suite of positions on the wispiness of what we call reality); and (3) the best book of any sort I’ve read in the last five years or so–Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory.

Meanwhile, next door, perhaps in anticipation of the coming season or perhaps to forget it, they’re listening to Vera Lynn-like music out of which emerges every so often a faint burst of 1940s dialogue–British, actors’ posh, somebody’s idea of how aristocratic ducks would talk–and I’m not sure whether they’re watching a film or if this is actually a physics condition of their kitchen.


Too many boxes, too many wires, too many books on the floor, too many bits of paper you don’t feel you can get rid of yet. Too many old computers. Too many things you meant to do three years ago & now they’re always in the way of thinking about the things you need to do today. They’re down there in the hall, they used to be objects but now they’re abject, the remains of all deferred decisions, and they’re there for you now, waiting to catch at your foot in a small room while you’re desperate to be thinking about something else. So many old clothes, on rails or hanging off the back of doors, offering the same old used to be, until you’re compelled very suddenly to cut off large amounts of yr beard & thank god for soup, toast & a bit of sunshine.

journal entry

“I realised instantly that this book mustn’t be about recapture. It mustn’t be about getting those memories out of storage and forging a new relationship with them. Nor is it, actually, about forcing them to stay in there. So what is it about? Not retrieval. It’s about leaving–leaving behind–& abjection, in parallel with (not opposition to) the return of the repressed. We’re supposed to care about the loss of the past, we’re supposed to fear/disapprove/cure/correct/solve/resolve. But what if you don’t? What if you write about welcoming the return of the repressed? That is, welcoming the hallucinatory, the neurotic, the compulsive? You could structure this by having a complete separation between what was repressed and what returns. No guesses. No diagnoses. Or make a list of what memory plots always handle and strip it out. Nothing about the need to retrieve, come to terms with, salvage, work through, understand or otherwise deal with repressed memories. An acceptance of what can be remembered. An incuriosity about what can’t. Above all, memory as image rather than narrative (or component of narrative), uninterpetable except as the image itself. & the return of the repressed welcomed as the basis of other texts, not of the memoir.”

And then: “True nostalgia is sudden, instant, cruel, real, the unstructured flash, the sense of a space whose emotional architecture is vast but by now unknowable. True retrospection is loss, not gain.”

variation on a theme

Around the self-storage office I used to see a man called Doug. Doug was in his early thirties. He had an intense, nervous look. At the same time he seemed pleased with himself.

To start with I used to wonder what relationship he had with Alice, the woman behind the counter. What was between these two? Doug was in awe of Alice somehow, but all it had done was make him bitchy.

They were involved in something long ago, I used to think to myself, and Doug lost out. She knows something he doesn’t, though Doug wants to believe it’s the other way around. He’s weaker than her. He has folded an image of her into expectations of life he now recognises–although he won’t admit it–to have been bizarrely optimistic.

To start with that was what I thought. It was a well worked out narrative, and might even have been true; but by the end, that didn’t matter.


A selection of recent interviews, etc– (Scroll down for the English version, it’s worth it.)

Walking between the old squatter cottages in The Jitties–in cold air and near dark, through mizzling rain–I hear a voice coming from a parked car. It’s American, intimate yet resonant, penetrating, conscious of an audience, and it’s reading from someone’s new novel, one of those clever first person deliveries designed to imply a listener in the text. There’s no driver in the car. There’s no one in the car at all. Its engine is running, it’s stopped at an angle at a corner in a billow of its own smoke. I walk past and go home thinking how much I’d like to win that Radio Four lottery and have my new book read that way, loudly but personably, to an empty lane at the end of November.

Crossposted from Mastodon

imaginary review #14 or maybe #15, I can’t remember

This contemporary fantasist is literate, clever, sentimental and evasive. His every scene swerves carefully away from its own realistic propositions and internal tensions and into whimsy & wish-fulfilment. Sometimes he’s good at stating the original position, sometimes that is freighted with whimsy too. The effect is increasingly egregious. As you move through the book, more and more of its worth–the observation of people and the tense condition of their relationships–is replaced by a kind of cod-Chagallism. What’s so irritating is that this happens on both sides of the divide–the real life and the fantasy-world by which he claims to be extending our understanding of it. Two people, usually a middle aged man and a beautiful woman, sit at a table outside a bistro in Confected Paris, they argue until it’s inevitable some strong emotion precipitates itself from the situation… and slip immediately from our world to adventures in the Confected Surreal. Everywhere is California and one confection acts as an alibi for the other, forever, encouraging fiction, author & reader to avoid the implications of the subject matter. This blunts any edge the book might have. It is not what magic realism is for. There is a lifelessness to work like this in an inverse ratio to its apparent energy.

Find more imaginary reviews under the imaginary reviews tag; or they’re collected as a single piece in You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press 2017.

My stats here look like an end-to-end iteration of the Golden Gate bridge.


Volume 4: Last Transmission From the Deep Halls–

… saying, once those outsiders get in your tortured halls … I’m saying we didn’t have command of the vast fictions of the day … The city wasn’t, in the end, where those of us who lived there thought it was. We had already lost it in all senses of that word … All we knew of this place was the news … the halls are aware that–in the end–they can never know what, exactly, the plot was. It’s only silence after that. Back at the beginning there’s the tapping sound, like metal on stone … then the call signs, several of them, very amplified and confused … cries in the halls … a cruel few words and then, “We no longer know which way to face.” The halls are still aware … What if the city didn’t “fall”. What if nothing “fell”? Nothing was lost but existed just alongside everything else, fifty years later in the rubble by a farm at the flat end of nowhere … who could write this … everyone has a different story to sell … call signatures in rooks, fresh plough, old silence: “We don’t know what to do. Everything is the alongside of something else.” … Minor players gesture helplessly … signals hard to make out in the chaos as the big institutions go down … everyone desperate now.

This section of “ELF Lands” was originally published on the blog in 2013– The complete short story was published in the New Scientist Christmas Edition, 2017.

a manner of speaking

“The cat appears out of the laurel at the end of the garden, pursuing something you can’t see.” Unless you’re an f/sf reader or a hard-nosed realist, the use of “something you can’t see” in that sentence is complexly unpackable. Along with “appears”, it questions the reality of the scene yet doesn’t. It has no problem with states or issues being superposed; it doesn’t ask what is “really” meant, or demand to know which side of the image the author’s on. Indeed, it relies on that superposition for its effect. Has the cat appeared out of nowhere, or is this a figure of speech to indicate suddenness? Is that something-which-can’t-be-seen actually invisible, or only, say, a line-of-sight issue of the viewer’s? Are both meant only to draw attention to typical cat behaviours?