I have a problem reading M. John Harrison. As much as I want to keep reading, greedy for the next page and the next, I also want to stop and think and write. I want, I need, to capture something evanescent in my response. Something that disappears the moment I start writing, of course. But that’s just the way it is.
In this, as in other things, Harrison recalls one of my other all-time favourite writers, William Golding. There is, in Golding, a sense of precise observation that in itself renders what is seen demented. The sense of reality off kilter that you find in Free Fall, in Pincher Martin, in Darkness Visible, creates a world we recognise and don’t recognise in the same instant, a mad ordinariness, an everyday abnormality. And that, surely, is what is there at the core of The Course of the Heart and Light, “Egnaro” and “The Incalling”. Even when he seems to take us into space in The Centauri Device or into a distant and decaying future in “Viriconium”, Harrison’s subject is the here, the now, the twisted and distorted thing we call everyday normality, seen from a perspective that is at once clarifying and distorting. In Golding, that distortion is created by a sort of religious despair; in Harrison, I think it is just despair.
Harrison is not a fantasist, he is certainly not a science fiction writer. The space travelled in The Centauri Device can be mapped onto a run-down, depressing north of England, as can The Pastel City. Nova Swing takes us to a distant planet, a distant future, a strange region of space in name only; in truth, everything we encounter there is fixed here in the way we mythologise the past to make it into a different country. When a young man travels between England and Viriconium via a mirror in a grimy cafe, you know each is a reflection of the other. Given that the Telford of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again introduces us to Pale Meadow and the Portway and the Gorge, we could as easily have slipped through that mirror into Viriconium. I could, at one point, have taken you by the hand and walked you through the Manchester streets that form the psychogeography of The Course of the Heart (mixed with a vivid helping of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts); and I have certainly visited the Kardomah cafe that, at one time, occupied a corner of St Ann’s Square and where bits of The Course of the Heart and numerous other stories take place.
Whatever he is writing, Harrison is essentially a realist, a chronicler of the more economically and psychologically depressed areas of Britain in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. It is just that he presents these mean streets, these stunted lives, from a perspective we are not used to in our supposedly realist fiction. To live in this world engenders a sort of madness, and so the world that is seen is itself mad. These everyday abnormalities take the form of irruptions of failed magics, of displacement to other worlds that have themselves lost any sense of purpose. There can be no escape, even the most extravagant imaginations can only take us back to a form of where we are now.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, the latest iteration of Harrison’s eternal war against the failures of ordinary life, is again a version of here and now that distorts what we think we see like a menacing funfair mirror. It begins with lives shut into overcrowded one-room apartments in ill-kept, flimsily-converted old houses. It is a world where any human contact is hasty, fleeting, disordered, shaped by a basic failure to grasp the reality of people in exactly the same circumstances as ourselves. Shaw’s mother, suffering from dementia, whose repetitious speech never bears more than a tantalising, tangential relationship to what has been said to her, serves as an exemplar for all human (dis)connections throughout the book. Here we think we recognise this world, it is one with which we are all too familiar, and yet the weird, as it begins to ooze into the picture, probably belongs here more naturally than we do.
Every conversation in a Harrison novel feels like it has been snatched off the street, a fragment overheard without context, without ever hearing the whole thing. They are misheard words torn from the middle of a sentence, though with no idea what came before, what comes after, what they might be responding to. And for that precise reason they sound oracular, potent, filled with a meaning that we can only begin to guess at. And that lack of context, that sense of a meaning forever just beyond our grasp, is the circumstance in which every Harrison character finds themself. With no surety to fix our place, there is only imagination, wonder, fear with which we might pretend there is a meaning in the world. Harrison’s writing is all gaps – incomplete speeches, intangible locations – out of which we might conjure such pretend meaning.
Shaw and Victoria, the two central characters in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (I hesitate to call them protagonists since that suggests a more engaged and active role than either can manage) are archetypal inhabitants of that world of gaps and imprecision. Their ambiguous nature is reflected in their names: every time he is with her, Shaw’s mother calls him by a different forename, none of which is his; while Victoria seems to go equally by the surname Norman or Nyman. They are, like so many of Harrison’s characters, less participants in the world than observers of it. They watch the world rush by as we might look out from the windows of a speeding train, never quite sure how we ended up on this particular train to this particular destination. They do not fully belong in the world; at one point both find themselves lost in familiar surroundings, an incident that is, in each case, rewarded with an ambivalent revelation. Victoria spends a night hopelessly lost in a wood near her home, only to emerge in the morning to see her friend Pearl step naked into a pool and disappear below the water, though the pool is itself so shallow that no person could submerge in it. Shaw finds himself lost aboard a beached and derelict Thames barge, only to discover a row of glowing Victorian medicine bottles, but at that moment a naked figure, so pale it might be green, grabs him then rushes past to dive into the river, and in that moment the bottles disappear. As so often in Harrison, those moments are freighted with meaning, though we have no sure idea what that meaning might be.
Many years ago I interviewed Harrison and we talked about Climbers, which he was then close to finishing. He told me he couldn’t actually finish the novel because he was waiting for something to happen. It was something he knew would happen within the world of climbing he inhabited, but it hadn’t happened yet. When it did, he would be able to write the scene and the novel would be complete. There is something strange and profound about that revelation. It bespeaks an extraordinary fidelity to the truth, a fidelity that rings through everything he writes. But at the same time it feels like a structural version of the dialogue composed of overheards. It is there when Shaw thinks of his memories of childhood in terms of scattered but very specific images. That is how the world is composed in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again as it is in all Harrison’s fictions. The images are very precise, they speak of something real, something witnessed, something that had to happen before it could be incorporated into the work. But at the same time they are scattered, more gap than whole, and it is through those gaps that the sense of something other emerges.
Is there really something sinister about some unseen person calling repeatedly for Moira or Voya or Vita (or perhaps an ill-heard, poorly enunciated form of Victoria)? Or is it just one of those fragmentary sounds of the street that would make perfect sense if we only heard the full context? Though, of course, that is something we never can hear. But it is precisely because we are shown a world not fully inhabited, not fully contextualised, that the other, the weird, can begin to be seen by those who find themselves willynilly in the gaps. Victoria witnesses Pearl leave one world and travel to the next, as surely as the young man pushes through his mirror into Viriconium. But Viriconium, or whatever we might choose to call it (names in this novel are spells that can never be uttered with absolute confidence) is also pushing through into this world, as tenuous travellers emerge from the back room of the bar in Nova Swing. These are the greenish figures, glimpsed but never fully seen, that seem to spring out of the darkness at various times throughout the novel. These are the inhabitants of the water world encountered in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies which seems to be read by everyone; in Tim Swann’s curious website, The Water House, which seems to hold a meaning that Tim can never convey; in Annie Swann’s faded map of the world in which the colouring suggests that the land and the ocean have changed place. This world and the other intersect, but is either more complete, does either contain more connecting tissue than it does gaps? Or is it just that this world, at least as seen by those who occupy no solid place within it, has just grown thin and tattered?