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Monday 20 January 2003

An Acerbic Criticís Journey to Harrisonium

  • Things That Never Happen,
    by M. John Harrison
    (Night Shade Books, 449 pages, January 2003)

  • Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Although not a Collected or Complete Stories per se (for examples of such, see colossal recent volumes by J.G. Ballard and Greg Bear), Things That Never Happen is certainly a thorough-going Best of M. John Harrison. Containing twenty-four fictions of extraordinary precision, density, and psychological acuity, Things is a book Harrisonís admirers have long awaited, and a master class for newcomers in the requirements of rigorous reading. It is the first major collection of 2003 in the fantastic field, and may be hard to overtake as the major collection of the year. Nevertheless...

Nevertheless, I personally, despite my high regard for Harrisonís sequence of entropic romances set in the protean far-future city of Viriconium, and my admiration for his brilliant comeback space opera Light, found Things irritatingly sententious and repetitious, terminally irresolute. I fully acknowledge the strengths of these stories: read individually, they evidence an insight into the mechanics and textures of modern living that is rarely equaled in contemporary fiction, in or out of genre. But if anything, it is because of that very quality, that penetrating appreciation of the mundane, that Things fails to happen for me, and, I dare say, for quite a few other at least reasonably discerning readers of fantastic literature. Perhaps the fault is in me and those of like opinion, some deficit of aesthetic sensitivity or critical courage; but I contend that, for all Harrisonís relentless experimental drive, the failure of courage is (at least primarily) his. He performs an abject surrender of the imagination.

Begin reading Things, and all is well. China Miťville writes a fine homage of a Foreword; Harrisonís own Introduction amusingly cudgels his younger self, and takes a very interesting sideswipe at Ballard, his early creative influence. The stories are — appropriately, given their evolution of mood and formal structure — arranged in chronological order of composition, so that the younger self so keenly deprecated is first to exhibit his talents. Those talents were clearly of a stupendous order: full of the missionary innovation of the British New Wave, "Settling the World", "Running Down", and "The Incalling" are tours de force of scene-setting, mood, and enigmatic supernatural process. God has arrived on Earth, His insectile glory a premonition of the astonishing alien invasion in the Viriconium novel A Storm of Wings; what monument is He building, and in whose devious honor? A single individualís physical and spiritual disrepair is materially contagious; can the much-derided "pathetic fallacy" have substance? A sick man seeks consolation, or merger, or escape, in the grimy cheap magics of inner-city mountebanks; is there some disconsolate posthumous truth to his imaginings and their fakery? These stories pose questions that cannot ultimately be answered, commendably defying genre fictionís imperative to closure; but there is a muscularity to their questioning, part profound conceptual originality, part blaze of probing descriptive detail, that imparts, all the same, an absolute urgency to their inquiry. Encountering their devastating mystery for the first time is (as I can testify from earlier reading, quite long ago) a breathtaking experience. If the now-superseded Young Harrison (the Introduction dismisses him as such) could achieve all this, what could the mature version not iterate? Alas, not, in the final analysis, all that much. Pages are eagerly turned, and the slide begins.

On its own, "Egnaro" is a superb fantasy of realism, a moody account of how the losers and wanderers of the postmodern cityscape yearn for redemptive access to an effulgent country of their dreams, glimpsed only in random signs and fugitive intimations, its very name a label of unknowability. Longing, sheer desiderium, could find no more eloquent expression. But read on, past "Old Women", a dexterous narrative of amnesia and uncertain identity, and "The New Rays", a disturbing, oblique reflection on incurable diseases and vulturine quacksalvers, and the pattern of "Egnaro" — fantasy and its refusal, amid quotidian desolation — is repeated again and again. It is a curious state of funk. Here is an acknowledged master of the fantastic apparently eager to assert, ad nauseam, the futility, the existential reprehensibility, of the fantastic. The Viriconium series declared likewise, but its pictorial flamboyance provided a continuing consolation in fantasy even as the exotic far future converged with the mundane present, and Viriconium segued into the London that was its true eternal original. In the latter stages of Things (with occasional exceptions, like the marvelous Le Guinean fable of alienation, "Seven Guesses of the Heart"), there is only the brutal shabby present that inspires cultural longing for the consolatory fantastic, and the doors slammed in the face of that longing. Harrison makes his very cogent point, but does it require such interminable, sadistically absolute, re-emphasis? This is consummate artistry in the hands of a Scrooge.

Consummate artistry indeed. Harrisonís teasing touches of the fantastic are brilliantly delivered, imparting the escapist aches of his protagonists so intimately that they are at once the readerís aches too. The urban environment of the late twentieth century emerges off the pages of Things with the particularity both of a perfectly accurate architectural primer and of a recurring nightmare; rural and small-town settings, no less oppressive and seedy, are captured as exactly and exactingly. The inhabitants of these places — disappointed, derelict, or daft — are realized with a precision that speaks to Harrisonís formidable skill as an observer of human behavior. Intense, painterly, intimidatingly complete, Harrisonís style is a wonder. In Viriconium and Light, where these huge gifts are applied in a context of balance, realism and the fantastic in dialogue and even in synergy, the result is marvelous. In most of Things, the outcome is a serendipitously couched meanness of spirit...

And so the reader languishes in an entropy of the everyday. Dreary council houses and flats, shabby hotels, disintegrating junk emporia, bleak railway platforms, abandoned building sites, bookshops purveying ill-assorted trash: these are the locales. Crazy broken-down entrepreneurs, scholars of useless esoterica, daredevil numbskulls, and philosophic poets of the wasteland are the dramatis personae. The atmosphere is vivid, but in the service of defeat. Otherworlds, ghosts, momentarily tactile presentiments of the beyond: these glimmer into view, provoking pursuit that leads nowhere. From this melting pot of disillusion are extracted the fugitive green goddess figure of "The Quarry", the strangely distilled London-that-was-Viriconium of "A Young Manís Journey to London", its reversal in "The East", the dismaying never-adumbrated Pleroma of "The Great God Pan", the Pynchonesque Tarot-quantum flimflam of "The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It", the sensual Egnaro of "Anima", the daydream of avian flight surgically abetted in "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring", the detective clues-that-are-not-clues of "The Neon Heart Murders", the VR frustration of "Suicide Coast".... This is a terrible punishment to endure. Enough.

To be fair, a few stories are more generous: "The Gift" contrives an unlikely affection, and "Science & the Arts" is a refreshing miniature of persons and principles reconciled. But Thingsí sense of frustration and blockage, of authorial spite, remains overwhelming. Far, far too many things have indeed not happened. In his Note to "The East", Harrison declares, "Dreamworlds can maintain themselves only as glimpses. Once the writer transports the reader across the threshold, nothing that was promised can be delivered. What was ominous becomes ordinary; what was bizarre, quotidian." Possibly a legitimate sentiment; but wisdom uttered in unending repetition becomes mere truism; and if delivery is impossible, why bother making the promise in the first place? Why break an undertaking? If you donít like fantasy, donít write it.

Analysis of M. John Harrisonís fiction frequently homes in on his pursuit of rock-climbing: his vision of human existence, it seems, compares a modern individualís plight most closely with the precarious — the defining — embrace of the rock face. Itís a powerful metaphor; but perhaps Harrison should descend more often from his eyrie, and perceive that the world is more than cliffs and chasms, not solely assimilable with the abrading, biting aid of rope, hammer, and piton.

Nick Gevers, an editor for PS Publishing, Prime, and Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus Magazine, and his reviews and interviews have also appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Weekly, Redsine, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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