TagM. John Harrison

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Sunday Story Society: “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring”

To keep up to date with the Sunday Story Society: view our schedule; follow @SundayStorySoc on Twitter; or visit us on Facebook.

Today we’re talking about “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” by M. John Harrison, a story which became the foundation of its author’s 1996 novel Signs of Life. To kick off, we have an extensive response from Nina Allan, which I’ll quote only in part here:

You could almost say that ‘Isobel’ is MJH in microcosm […] It bears many ur-Harrison trademarks: gaunt cityscapes in decline, disenchanted individualists in terminal disconnect mode, intimations of the marvellous. The language of the story manages somehow to be both resolute and dissolute, a gradual persuasion of the drab towards incandescence.

And here are some initial thoughts from me:

When I read this story, I still had the experience of Viriconium very much in mind; if that series moves towards the destruction of fantasy-as-escape, I see “Isobel Avens” as doing something similar. Of course, there’s Isobel’s dream of flying, which cannot be realised; and the fantastical surgery, which is no magic solution. But I also think this is a great portrait of an exhausted relationship: empty conversations; Mick Rose’s constant calls for the reader to “imagine this”, as though his relationship with Isobel happened to someone else. And there are some superb lines: “The years I lived with her I slept so soundly” – I love how equivocal that sentiment is.

So, what did you think?

Sunday Story Society reminder: “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” by M. John Harrison

Another Sunday Story Society session is coming around, and this time  we have a piece by Viriconium author M. John Harrison up for discussion. The story in question is “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring”, which you can read here at Infinity Plus. Then join me here on Sunday, when I’ll have a discussion post up.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium (1971-85)

This is Viriconium: the city to end all cities; namesake of the dominant empire in Earth’s twilight. This is Viriconium: an omnibus of novels and stories by M. John Harrison. When you venture in, it’s important to bear in mind which of these statements is the more accurate.

By the way, this post is going to tell you quite a bit about what happens. I can’t really see that as a spoiler, because plot is not the point of Viriconium (except insofar as it’s an illusion, like much else in the stories). It’s the experience of reading Harrison’s work that counts, and nothing I say here can substitute that. Not that it’s going to stop me trying to give a sense of Viriconium, of course.

The first novel in the sequence, The Pastel City (1971), sees Viriconium under attack from the forces of the ruling queen’s cousin. One of the old king’s champions, tegeus-Cromis (‘who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman’), picks up his weapons and sets out to reunite his comrades-in-arms and defend the city. So far, so conventional, it might seem – albeit with a vividly realised setting of a decaying far future. Advanced technology from previous eras (the ‘Afternoon Cultures’) persists, but the world has forgotten how it works. The landscape is one of rust and garishly-coloured metal salts. The stars have been rearranged to spell the name of a past culture, but no one is left who can read it.

But the deeper themes of Viriconium are already becoming apparent. Some say that reality is becoming thin with age, forgetting itself. Cromis’s journey does not run according to plan, and he turns away from witnessing its ending, and away from greater knowledge. By the close of The Pastel City, individuals from one of the Afternoon Cultures have been resurrected – so Viriconium finds itself in danger of being superseded by the past.

As a fictional city, Viriconium is a timeless mish-mash; but, in The Pastel City, one nevertheless has the impression of a coherent, functioning place. That impression is predicated on the structure of the novel, though, as A Storm of Wings (1980) makes clear. This is a much more fragmented text, which could be seen in some ways as a parody of its predecessor’s quest-fantasy. Various characters (some from The Pastel City, some not) assemble in the queen’s palace to begin dealing with a threat to Viriconium. But the sense is much more that they have been moved there, like pieces on a gameboard; the reasons for their gathering are not so clear, to them or the reader.

All those reasons, it turns out, are aspects of the same thing: an invasion of insect-people who have their own way of perceiving the universe, radically different from humans’ – and these alternative perceptions vie for supremacy. Reality in Viriconium (in Viriconium) is literally what you make of it. The scenes of A Storm of Wings slide between perceptions; the reader’s best hope is perhaps just to hang on.

In the third novel, In Viriconium (1982), part of the city has been afflicted by a ‘plague’ which causes reality itself to thin out: people fall ill, buildings decay, ventures fail. A portrait-painter named Ashlyme attempts to rescue his fellow-artist, Audsley King, from the plague zone – a mission which, perhaps inevitably, leads to disaster. Harrison shows the reality of Viriconium to be ever flimsier here: so much so that the real world (our world) is leaking through. The mundanity of the novel’s events, and the fragmented nature of its ‘narrative’, suggest that the coherence of The Pastel City was illusory, no more than a matter of perception.

It might seem at first glance that the Viriconium novels take place in the same chronology, but there are enough discrepancies to make clear that it’s not so. And the stories which were assembled as Viriconium Nights (1985) – and are scattered throughout the 2000 omnibus I was reading – demonstrate that even more emphatically. Characters and places (even Viriconium itself) can have different names or histories. This is revealed to the character Ignace Retz in the story ‘Viriconium Knights’, when he is shown scenes of adventure featuring warriors who bear his face. ‘All knights are not Ignace Retz,’ he is told – but, if all these scenes have happened, or will happen, somewhere, what does that make him?

In my omnibus, ‘Viriconium Knights’ is placed first of all (even before The Pastel City); so we know from the start that there can be no such thing as a definitive vision of Viriconium. Essentially, the Viriconium Nights stories are slices of life from ‘places’ that can have no life beyond their individual tales. In ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ – the final story – Viriconiun is no more than an abstract entity for which people in our world may yearn. The protagonist tries vainly to make the mirror of a café toilet act as a portal to Viriconium. After images of the far future and tales of saving the world, that is all you have left. That is what’s real.

Viriconium represents a systematic destruction of the idea of fantasy as escape. It is bleak, even nightmarish at times – yet it’s beautiful, too. You’ll have to read it for yourself, though, to really see what I mean.

Book notes: Caldwell, Delius, Harrison

Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point (2011)

Euan Armstrong takes his young family to Bahrain, ostensibly to undertake missionary work; but Euan’s wife Ruth begins to question all that she holds dear when she discovers the true nature of that work. Meanwhile, teenage Noor Hussain has returned to Bahrain from England to live with her father; she has struggled to fit in and is contemplating suicide. But then Noor finds new hope in the person of Ruth, just as Ruth is falling for Noor’s brother Farid.

There are times, particularly towards the beginning, when Caldwell’s description feels over-egged; but The Meeting Point ultimately succeeds because of the elegance with which it portrays its central dynamic. Both Ruth and Noor have unrealistic desires which will inevitably lead them to clash; the progression of those events is thoroughly credible. Caldwell also draws her protagonists deftly; there’s a nice contrast between the broad strokes of Noor’s teenage impulsiveness, and Ruth’s more measured personality. All in all, The Meeting Point is a well-wrought novel that’s very much worth reading.

Lucy Caldwell’s website

Friedrich Christian Delius, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006/10)

Another fine novella from Peirene Press, this one translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Margherita is a young German woman who came to Rome to be with her soldier husband Gert, only for him shortly after to be sent to Africa in the aftermath of El Alamein. Now, in 1943, she is alone in Rome, unable to speak Italian, but grateful for the small German enclave which surrounds her. We follow Margherita as she makes her way to a Bach concert, and reflects on her situation.

At a structural level, Portrait of the Mother is masterful, as its 117 pages comprise a single sentence. The affect of this is of a constant unspooling of thought and detail, with certain ideas recurring throughout. Delius captures particularly well Margherita’s naivety, and the irony underpinning it: insulated as she is her little bubble, she can’t comprehend the difficulties faced by ordinary Roman citizens; she’s sure that everything will be fine with Gert, just as she is sure that Rome would never be a target for bombing… Delius’s Portrait is a sharp character study.

M. John Harrison, The Ice Monkey (1983)

One of my reading resolutions for this year is to get around to reading something by M. John Harrison, who has been on my TBR list for rather longer than I’d have liked. I decided to start with collection of seven short stories, which has proven very interesting to read.

The title story sees Harrison’s narrator, Spider, who takes his friend Jones to visit the latter’s estranged ex-wife, Maureen – it doesn’t go well. Later, Jones and Spider go climbing on Ben Nevis, and that ends in tragedy. This piece sets a certain tone that carries through much of the rest of the anthology – many characters have similarly broken lives, for example – but there’s also continuity at a deeper, more structural level. The ending of ‘The Ice Monkey’ reads to me like a formal parody of a horror story, as it goes through the motions of hinting at a supernatural agency without actually doing so with any conviction – as though to emphasise that the mess-ups in the story have very human and natural causes, and there is no escape into the possibility of ‘magic’.

A deliberate turning-away from the fantastic seems integral to the affect of Harrison’s stories, here, as rituals and other strange happenings remain as mysterious to reader and characters alike at the end of a piece as they were at the beginning. In that respect, I’m reminded of when, last year, I read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, whose aesthetic is also ‘anti-explanatory’ – though I find Harrison’s tales embody their aesthetic  more thoroughly.

The Ice Monkey is perhaps best summed up for me by its final sentences. In the closing story, ‘Egnaro’ is the name of a secret place which is heard fleetingly by various of its characters. Where other tales might uncover the truth of that place, Egnaro remains no more than a whisper’ As the story’s narrator remarks:

The secret is meaningless before you know it: and…worthless when you do. If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery. (p. 144)

My key lasting impression of the stories in The Ice Monkey is that they highlight such ordinariness. Now I look forward to reading Harrison’s Viriconium, to find out if that impression will remain.

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