the m john harrison blog

Tag: books & reviews

the sort of book that might appear in a short story in a collection just like this

Ghosts being such rich contributors to the tradition, the very first item on Philip Hensher’s shopping list of best British short stories is “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” by Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s opening clause, “This thing is so rare in all its circumstances”, which Penguin have printed on the back board of the first volume, might be a statement of intent on behalf of the form itself. The most abject of short stories must make this claim, if no other, somewhere in its content, or structure; many, of course, fail to deliver on it… More

My review of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in the TLS today.


…thank you for sending me that thriller you thought I might say something about. Your outsourced editorial department has been very anxious to mend this book, but all they have done is procure a fatal collision between faux-Scandi & creative writing course. It reads like a failed Masterchef skills test. It’s not “stylish”. It’s as awkward & undercooked as all the other eager new commercial fiction. The prose is elephantine. It does not convey the excitement & tension it thinks it is conveying. The structure of the whole is as lumbering & literalistic as the sentences that comprise it. The characters have been made up to fit the plot, then visibly tweaked by someone who isn’t the writer–or indeed a writer–so that they fit a ten-year-old UK industry paradigm of relatability. The characters’ emotions are either leaden or leadenly depicted, it’s hard to tell which. The moral situations into which they have been inserted are dull. Their ideas about the world were interesting–even exciting–when the editor’s generation was young, but now they’re the unchallenged assumptions we all make daily.

seed banks

Katherine Carlyle is a frozen embroyo. Eight years later, she’s born. 19 years old, she’s living in Rome alone, receiving what she thinks of as “messages” from the near environment–a fifty-euro note (folded) found while crossing the piazza Farnese, a “small grey elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck”. She’s leaving messages too, at least in a sense. For instance she’s having sex in a hotel on the via Palermo with a man she met five minutes ago, who smiles and calls her Mia piccola strega. Even her friend Dani thinks this a gesture too far. But soon she’s hearing a new, powerful message–a conversation in a cinema in which she picks out a name and the word “Berlin”. So now instead of going to Oxford university, she’s leaving for Germany. She’s erasing her computer files; she’s throwing her smartphone in the river. It’s time. Read the rest of my review of Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Katherine Carlyle, in the Guardian…

a cure for suicide

Jesse Ball lectures on lying at the Art Institute of Chicago. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2014, he defined a novel as “an account, or a series of accounts” that create “half a world” – the other half being in the gift of, and supplied by, the reader. The ensuing competition between them – the struggle for closure – will induce the reader to create a “rich world, full of paradoxes or conflicting authorities and ideas”. In the end, Ball believes, “that’s a closer approximation of the truth of experience, what it’s like to live, than a single, supposedly objective account”. Rebecca Bates, the interviewer on that occasion, found Ball “by turns both serious and coy” – an effective description of his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, a deceptively bland dystopia centred on the social construction of identity. Read the rest of my review of A Cure for Suicide at the Guardian, here.

the heart goes last

You make the dystopia you deserve. It’s the near future, and finance capitalism has pushed itself over the edge. The US is a rustbelt. Charmaine and Stan – we never learn their surname, which encourages a slightly patronising relationship with them – started out well: she worked for Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics; he was in quality control at Dimple Robotics. Now they live in their car, just two ordinary Americans down on their luck. Charmaine maintains a “lightly positive tone” but misses her flowered throw pillows; Stan, though he “can lean to the mean when he’s irritated”, is a good man underneath, and feels he has let her down. They’re used to the smell, they’re used to being hungry. They have each other. They seem a little naive in the way they maintain their love as a bulwark against the world; and it is this naivety that makes them vulnerable when, in desperation, they join Positron, a socioeconomic experiment based around a privately funded postmodern prison… Read the rest of my review of Margaret Atwood’s savage new satire, The Heart Goes Last, in the Guardian

“Ishiguro repeatedly frustrates any hopes for a usual narrative trajectory, muffles noise, and hints at things which are never explicitly revealed. It is because of this that, despite the language being simple, despite every action and event being clearly described, we end up with such a thoroughly enigmatic novel”

John Self on Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

2014 reads

I read quite a few books this chaotic Twitter- & Kindle-fuelled year, with lots of re-reads too. So this is not a list of “bests”, but–with one exception–of books I just really enjoyed. I know, not like me. But. The Free & Northline, Willy Vlautin. Wolves, Simon Ings; Helen Marshall’s Gifts For the One Who Comes After; Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, such an interesting form; Little Egypt, Leslie Glaister; Europe in Autumn, by the criminally under-published Dave Hutchinson; Marshland by Gareth E Rees; The Uninvited, Liz Jensen; The Adjacent, Christopher Priest; Pig Iron and Beastings by Ben Myers; Consequences, Penelope Lively; Tigerman, Nick Harkaway; Maze, JM McDermott; The Race, Nina Allan. For the pure tripped-out strangeness sf does best: Peter Watts’ absolutely mad & engrossing Firefall; and William Gibson’s sophisticated The Peripheral, in which the descendents of our beloved familiar Russian oligarchs farm the “stubs” of discarded timelines–saturated & cool at the same time, and, underneath, a wild ride. Bete, from the punning pen of the incalculable Adam Roberts; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber, the upshot of which broke my heart & made me cry, obsolete old romantic I would appear to be. Nonfiction: Out of Place, Edward W Said; The Atlantic Ocean, Andrew O’ Hagan; the very absorbing Forbidden & Permitted Stories by Valeria Ugazio; The Ash & the Beech, Richard Mabey; Jonathan Meades’ Encyclopedia of Myself; The Uncanny, by the other Nicholas Royle; Jackdaw Cake & Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis (the latter a Twitter recommend from Adelle Stripe). The Kindle led me into bad habits, namely reading a few Booker hopefuls for a change, including Richard Powers’ Orfeo and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (went on to read The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, which I enjoyed as much if not more). Re-reads: The Triumph of Night, Edith Wharton. After forty-odd years, Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which surprised me with its intelligence, humour and a dry kind of grace. Tim Etchells’ savage Endland Stories, which ought to be read in parallel with and in opposition to Graham Swift’s England stories. Most exciting job of work, 2014: writing the introduction to Ballard’s The Drought for the new Fourth Estate edition. Most enjoyable literary hashtag: #LossLit. Recommendations not yet followed up: The Dig by Cynan Jones, which I’ve heard is brutal & good. Most boring book of the year: Joseph O’Neil’s novel. The Dog, indeed.

bad behaviour

I don’t know what to make of Richard Powers’ Orfeo. One minute I’m luxuriating in its complex weave of themes & thinking it’s the best Booker contender I’ve read so far. The next I’m writing: “In the late 50s/early 60s, JG Ballard would have taken the three or four central images & concepts of this book, compressed them into somewhat less than ten thousand words & made out of them the something astonishing that’s long-windedly hinted at here. I know it’s unforgiveable to say this, but Powers’ Orfeo lumbers by comparison to the Orfeo Ballard never wrote.” This isn’t just bad behaviour, it’s a failure to accept one of the threads of Powers’ argument about the fate of the experimentalist aesthetic over the last fifty years. I’m quite excited by the internal dialogue it’s sparked. (Although I’ve already spotted the upshot, which he telegraphed only a few pages in, & suspect Chuck Palahniuk would have been the man to write that. See? I did it again.)

from the moon in its flight

Loved this–

In 1948, the whole world seemed beautiful to young people of a certain milieu, or let me say, possible. Yes, it seemed a possible world. This idea persisted until 1950, at which time it died, along with many of the young people who had held it.

So bleak.

Read the whole of Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in its Flight” here at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

graham swift

Graham Swift is a watcher, a listener, the recorder of our days. “People are life,” one of his characters suggests, but life is also the social structures that context the living of it. The short stories in his third collection often focus, therefore, on occasions. Weddings and divorces, job interviews and funerals, all the puzzled collisions with the bureaucratic infrastructure, all the usual points of connection between the individual and the culture: if they aren’t providing a direct context, they’re never very far in the background… (more)


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