the m john harrison blog

Tag: books & reviews

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

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voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.

some falls

Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on

My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.

When we meet him, Buckmaster has been living in an old barn for a year and some months. He arrived “shoeless, over the moor from the east”. Since then he’s cleaned, repaired, caulked the gaps with anything he could find. He’s made it his own. His intention is “To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness”. This, he says, is the only life. Nevertheless, he’s not sleeping much. He dreams of a hare with human eyes. Awake, he’s hallucinating. There are patterns on the moor; and when the tourists go home at night, “All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.” Something is coming towards him, he doesn’t know what.

–My review of Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel Beast, in the Guardian.

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.

hi…

…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