the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

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.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

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.

a word here & there

I wondered what all this was going to mean for the book. I spent yesterday reading back everything including the notes and decided there was no need to worry. Given that it’s about someone so alienated, inturned and obsessed by his own descent that he simply fails to see, let alone understand, the things that are going on around him, I decided I didn’t have to change more than a word here and there. “That was the Brexit summer” will do just as well as “That was the Ukip summer”, if not better.

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.

signs of relief

The Gollancz reprints of The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen are up at Amazon UK, with a release date of 8th September 2016. Pre-orders are encouraged. No images available. There was some interesting art & design for the covers, which I saw way back at the end of 2014, but I believe that’s been toned down a little now. Even so, they should look quite grown up. If this is good news to you, you can’t be any more relieved than me. Along with Climbers, these books have a central place in my heart–the idea that they’d never be in print again was gnawing at me a bit.

a story of ghosts

The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a puzzling selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that. & it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.

a glaze composed of human fats

For the first time in my life I have an “office”, so obviously I work on a laptop at one end of the kitchen table, hemmed in by all the bits & pieces–books under review, phone, meds, plates of half-eaten sardine sandwiches & scraps of torn paper on which someone has scratched hastily, “is it a function of genre, or genre-under-PoMo, or genre lensed by massive conscious access to its own legacy product? Or all of that?” It’s fine. C is in London, working for the man. The kitchen is quiet apart from the weird buzzing of the fluorescent fitment & the raw stupid constant barking of next door’s dogs, who are as shut out as ever & still can’t believe it. As soon as I took possession of that “office” up there at the top of the house, I made a rule that I would never keep in it anything useful to my trade, e.g. a filing cabinet, say, or a phone, or books, especially books by me; nor would I have pictures on the wall or keep anything you could associate with writing in the French shabby-chic glass cabinet I bought during some kind of fugue or psychotic break at the Stretton antiques market on a wet summer afternoon in 2013. The real feature of that room is not what does or doesn’t go on in there: it’s the floorboards, which look as if they were hand-trimmed two hundred years ago & never treated & thus have concentrated to themselves a thick patina or glaze composed of human fats & spillages & soot molecules from the real Industrial Revolution, which everyone who lives here knows took place in Broseley, not at the better-known World Heritage Site down the road. They are like iron. I am in love with those floorboards & man enough say it. But look, all those years I graphically described the crimes I would do to get a room of my own, what do they mean now? It’s possible, before your life knits itself back together, to write half a novel in the university offices & shonky rentals in bad circumstances of six different acquaintances in as many months.