[This is, I suppose, a place holder for something I may want to explore at greater length elsewhere. But for now …]
I don’t normally listen to podcasts, I suppose I tend to be visually rather than aurally directed. But Maureen insisted that I should listen to an episode of Weird Studies, to be precise, Episode 81: Gnostic Lit: On M. John Harrison’s ‘The Course of the Heart’. She said I would enjoy it; she was absolutely right. In a sense it amplifies and runs variations on some of the things I was talking about when I discussed The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again a little while ago.
One of the things that caught my attention was an opening discussion about zones, specifically referring to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. (The two people hosting the podcast don’t seem to be overly familiar with Harrison’s other work, so they completely miss how closely this relates to the middle volume in his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Nova Swing. A pity, that could have opened up a much wider and even more complex discussion.) But I found myself thinking less of the zones, however we might choose to characterise them, than of the boundaries between zones. And I realised how much of my favourite literature, the literature that for me best exemplifies the fantastic, is specifically concerned with the identification and the examination of such boundaries.
Harrison is, of course, the prime example here. The Course of the Heart concerns the relationship between mundane reality and the pleroma, here identified as the vanished land of the Coeur. Typically, the pleroma is not real and its achievement is more associated with loss than with achievement, so in Nova Swing the story moves between everyday disappointment and the unfulfilled promise of the pleroma-like zone. Exactly the same dynamic is there in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, as it is in stories like “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” or, more recently, “In Autotelia”.
But it is not just Harrison who explores this boundary between the worlds. Think, for instance, of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. The edge of Ryhope Wood is exactly the sort of border between Saubade and the zone that we encounter in Nova Swing. Crossing that border, entering the wood, is less a journey into a land of myth than it is into a land of promise.
Or there is the boundary between England and the Dream Archipelago in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. It is not just that these are two sides of a shattered mind, it is that each is a realm of promise. To Peter Sinclair in Britain, the Dream Archipelago is the longed-for but ultimately unsatisfying pleroma; to Peter Sinclair in the Dream Archipelago, it is the other way round. As the boundaries between the two worlds become ever more porous, so the other land becomes more expressly the dream that is unfulfilled, the desire that is unsatisfied.
And there are others. The sister who disappears and then, perhaps, reappears, crosses one way and then the other across this very boundary in Nina Allan’s The Rift. The multiple Americas of Steve Erickson’s Rubicon Beach are separated one from the other by just such a boundary.
Of course, and it is probably rather bathetic to point this out, identifying and crossing such a boundary is commonly figured as an act of creativity. The two Peter Sinclairs are both writers, the secret of Ryhope Wood is first revealed in the pages of a diary, the story of the Coeur is imagined into life in the stories that one character tells to another. But still I can’t help thinking there is something here, something that might repay further consideration. Something to ponder upon further, I suspect.