M. John Harrison's Signs of Life: Ashton et al.

contrary to what my absence on this blog over the past few days may indicate, i have not been completely inactive here. in fact, my reading of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life continues to progress, albeit slowly. i have also made a digression or two, most notably through the first chapters of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. it's just been hard to wrap my head around what i want to say here.

right. Signs of Life. here goes...

i've fallen in love with the trio of characters at the heart of this book. i love Mr Harrison's characters in general (even the misanthropic Yaxley from The Course of the Heart and the morally despicable Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher from Light), but Mick 'China' Rose, Isobel Avens and Choe Ashton feel more solidly realized than anyone else in Mr Harrison's fiction. all his characters tend to be fractured personalities, informed with one form of desperation or another, but the distinction of these three is that they feel like they have a more active approach to life and living. Pam Stuyvesant, Lucas Medlar and the nameless narrator of The Course, for instance, all feel somewhat insubstantial in the way they seem to be knocking about their lives, like ghosts in the attic bouncing off walls and antique debris, searching for the light switch only to fall one by one down the open hatch to the equally unlit, if not quite as dark, flat below. the characters of Light, on the other hand, feel like warped reflections or ill-fitting fragments of each other, and while each has a distinct flavor of personality, there's something ghostly about the way the knock about as well, colliding and adhering to each other like something wet and sickish, despite the razor's edge of desperation (i really can't think of a better word for it) each character has.

the trio in Signs feel like hardier personalities, despite being no less 'victims' of the 'real world'. they are people we can cheer for, expressly raising our voices to goad them on through the story, their lives, despite the ultimately tragic end we come to expect, this being, after all, an M. John Harrison novel (this is not to over-generalize...Light, after all, had an optimistic ending, and the final reflection of The Course, to my mind at least, feels somewhat redemptive in its ultimate acceptance of humanity, of love). Isobel Avens is the 'obvious' dreamer. she is unabashedly an escapist; she finds Mick/China's lie about flying 'brilliant', delights in a dream of flying she has while with Mick/China. Mick/China fills the 'observer' role of the nameless narrator of The Course; is he, perhaps, an escapist, too, living vicariously through his ostensibly diametrically opposed friends? nonetheless, he feels more substantial and grounded than the painfully hopeless narrator of that other work. Choe Ashton is the sort of person one 'lives vicariously' through...one, however, wonders at the driving force behind Choe Ashton's daredevilry, creating an interesting dimension to the character.

I wasn't sure boredom was entirely the issue. Some form of exploration was taking place, as if Choe Ashton wanted to know the real limits of the world, not in the abstract but by experience. I grew used to identifying the common ground of these stories--the point at which they intersected--because there, I believed, I had found Choe's myth of himself, and it was that myth that energised him.

an apparently reasonable assumption for Mick/China to make, i might interject, a neat little package to wrap the whole personality that is Choe Ashton in; however, Mick/China follows this immediately with:

I was quite wrong. He was not going to let himself be seen so easily. But that didn't become plain until later.

these lines represent for me the trajectory Mr Harrison has launched all three characters on, and i admit finding myself intrigued, not only to find out where that arc might terminate, but by the shape of the arc itself.


M. John Harrison's Signs of Life: an introduction of sorts

it may only be because the copy of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life i own is the one in Anima (which publishes Signs together with The Course of the Heart), but i feel compelled to draw parallels and make comparisons between the two books. for instance: the first detail of Signs, the very first thing we are told, is the narrator's name. in fact, we learn, the narrator has two of them:

My name is Mick Rose, which is why a lot of people call me 'China'.

Mick's, or China's, depending on your preference, is a more amiable voice than that of the narrator of Course, whose name we *never learn* throughout that book's 200+ pages. there is a more familiar humor in Mick's voice; it seems, perhaps, more natural, more of the 'average joe'; more of the wakeful day than the dreaming night, one might say; more modern, more 'hip': Mick's voice makes him feel more grounded, less inclined to question his reality the way Course's narrator seemed predisposed to even in childhood:

When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever event was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it. (The Course of the Heart, page 7.)

interesting counterpoint, yes? also rather obvious for certain aspects of this discussion: Abigail Nussbaum in an earlier review noted something to the effect of The Course of the Heart being a nongenre 'fantasy' and Signs of Life being a nongenre 'science fiction' story. if that is, in fact, the case, the way the two stories begin, the way they differ from the very first word and proceed from there, all these things make an interesting comment on the 'genres each story chooses to transcend', if i may put it that way.

these two stories, in that light, appear to be companion pieces, Mr Harrison's own commentary on the elements that are used to define the two genres and ultimately distinguish them from each other. the value of collecting the two stories into one volume appears to be based in part on the substance behind Ms Nussbaum's analysis and this subsequent comparison. the publishers of Anima, however, also make it clear that the decision to collect the two stories in one volume is based on something else:

When a writer like M. John Harrison looks at love, you know the results will be unusual and compelling, evocative and imaginative, dark, depressing and transcendent. Here in one volume are his two classic love stories...fantastical romances, quests, thrillers - and wholly M. John Harrison. (Anima, from the back of the book.)

clearly, there is a *thematic* intersection between the two stories, and this seems yet another good reason to look at the two stories as complementary, to examine one in light of the other. however, the differences, to my mind, also dictate something else, that must be just as important to the appreciation of either work: the two stories must be taken separately, on their own terms.

this seems a painfully obvious conclusion to make of any two works, but it is one i feel i must state: having read The Course of the Heart a long time ago, it continues to resonate in my mind as one of the most beautiful and interesting stories i have ever read; unfortunately, the resonance of that work now informs my reading of Signs of Life. (putting the stories together in one volume doesn't quite help.)

by stating that one obvious fact, i am attempting to exorcise those resonances; of course, it may not be possible (might even be wrong-headed, come to think of it), given that the presence of any one thing is supposed to deform the universe, and our previous experiences make impressions on how we perceive later experiences. but i would, at the very least, like to try.

Mr Harrison's skill as a writer, thankfully, makes it possible to succeed: though his writing in Signs shows the same sort of attention to detail, informed as it is with the same 'low latent inhibition' suggested by his writing elsewhere, Mick 'China' Rose has a particular voice that is able to incorporate that aesthetic in what appears to be a more 'practical' or, perhaps, more 'conventionally rational' mindset.

to put it another way, The Course of the Heart felt like it was still somewhere between Viriconium and the 'real world'...Mr Harrison's writing in Signs suggests it exists further on the other side of the spectrum. which pushes me harder, personally, to try to read Signs as a distinct entity, and not simply a 'companion' to Course.


Inter Alia: Alan Wall, Iain M. Banks, Daniel Handler

Things That Never Happen took so much of my attention that i really couldn't say much about my digressions--well, nothing i thought sensible enough to post; but here, allow me to try to recover some of my thoughts at the time: Alan Wall is an amazingly sharp writer, and between his first novel, School of Night and his latest, China (both of which i'd only really dabbled in, reading only the first few chapters of each book), you can see the progress he's made over the years. both are well-crafted, beautiful works, but there's a comfort with the rhythm and flow of China that i couldn't find in School. Mr Wall's writing, appropriately enough for China feels like 'jazz when it works'...but i couldn't continue; everything just felt too, well, linear after the scattershot-genius of Things; i was in the wrong mindset for it, so i'll probably have to come back to Mr Wall's books some other time.

Iain M. Banks' State of the Art opens rather tepidly, imho. Road of Skulls seemed too embroiled in its own wit, and while it had its moments, the ending didn't quite 'linger like smoke rising from a crematorium' as Publishers Weekly put it over on Amazon.com. Road just wasn't as clever as it thought it was, to my mind. A Gift from the Culture started out much more promisingly; i've always admired Mr Banks' wit, but always thought it worked best when 'being clever' wasn't allowed centerstage. i got through a couple pages of A Gift, but i'd only picked the book up to keep me company while i waited for someone, and when she arrived, i closed the book, set it aside, and haven't gone back to it since.

Daniel Handler's Watch Your Mouth was my most recent digression before going back to the beginning of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life. i am utterly distressed by (read: i absolutely love) Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, though my reading mindset has thankfully (read: regrettably) of late kept me away from finishing the series off by reading The End. Mr Handler is Mr Snicket's 'representative' as i understand it, and is no less gifted, i hear, with wit. no doubt about it: the writing in Watch Your Mouth feels like ASoUE for adults--with healthy doses of sex and everything; sans Baudelaires, of course, though i expect i would not be surprised at all to find a hook-handed man, powder-faced twins, a person who looks neither like a man or a woman, or dirty old men with eyes tattooed to their ankles lurking about in the shadows of the book's pages.

i feel like i missed a 'digression' or two; ah well: all this more or less gets you up to speed with where i'm at, and brings us back round to Mr Harrison's Signs of Life.


M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen: 'The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It' and 'Gifco'

this stands at the heart of it all:


i had just been musing how, having read M. John Harrison's longer works, reading his short fiction at times felt like accidentally walking into rehearsals for some magic trick or other you'd seen before, catching bits of it through a backstage door propped open with a broom, from the wings or from the entrance to the theater while some stagehand, bouncer, receptionist or urchin from the street outside tries to distract you with irrelevant conversation--conversation that in retrospect suddenly becomes startlingly significant.

it's almost a kind of deja vu; only with print, you can always go back to it and more solidly make the connections. or can you?

i've already noted in previous installments how some of these stories can be found in altered form in Mr Harrison's longer works: The Quarry and The Great God Pan in The Course of the Heart most notably, and A Young Man's Journey to London. but there are other bits i failed to note, of which i can now only remember two: The Gift features, in passing, some parlour or other called 'Nueva Swing', a drycleaners or laundromat called 'New Venus'. Here in the next two tales, more connections can be found: The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It opens with what appears to be one of Mr Harrison's favorite images, that of a horse's skull (paraphrasing: 'not a horse's head, but its skull, which is nothing like the horse's head'), an image that repeats like a bad dream in Viriconium and is a vital element of Light, and 'You bloody piece of paper!' which i remember from The Course of the Heart; Gifco includes a dream sequence which makes its way into Light. this 'cut-and-paste' aesthetic makes me wonder whether i should feel cheated by Mr Harrison; but each fragment is blended so seemlessly with the rest of the text that it hardly seems to matter. or does it?

these last two stories feel like jigsaw puzzles of memory; episodic, messy and obscure, the meanings of everything shifting, imprecise: mutable, and in many ways obscure. the Ephebe of The Horse maps his life out using Tarot cards, and we find in the end only the beginning; Gifco's narrator, some Jack or other, reconstructs the fragments of his life and encounters the limitations of memory, how life becomes, in retrospect, something of an illusion. both stories leave me to ask whether finding the sense of it all is a futile endeavor, or the only thing that matters.

the next few stories, as i understand it, are also to be found in Signs of Life, which i've not yet read. should i press on? see the fragments before they slot into the whole? i wonder.

i expect i'll be going back to Signs of Life before i continue with Things That Never Happen. however, having seen the effect of watching the magic show before catching rehearsals, i wonder what the experience might be like turned around?

M. John Harrison's entire body of work, to my mind, begs to be read in its entirety, not stopping at mere fragments, but gobbling up every short story and novel the man has written, and will presumably write. the intersections (the source, at times, of the feeling of being 'cheated' by a writer who knows more about his own work than you do) appear to create a metafictional web that illustrates Mr Harrison's philosophy, or philosophies, and it seems a shame to begrudge yourself even one tiny piece of the entire puzzle.

i fear my mind too weak to completely comprehend what Mr Harrison is saying: perhaps, at the end of it all, the meaning will suddenly become clear, like a mountain vista at daybreak. perhaps not. for me, however, despite its difficulties and obscurities, and despite all of Mr Harrison's cautions against 'reading only for entertainment', i find it an utter joy to make the journey. much like life. perhaps that's the point.

perhaps not.


M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen: Five more stories

reading M. John Harrison's stories can be a lot like reconstructing lives from the snatches of conversation you hear on the commute to and from work; as you sit in a restaurant waiting for your order, or for the waiter to hand you a menu; as you walk by the edge of a crowd gathered round some accident or other you cannot see. in Michael Moorcock's Mother London, David Mummery, Josef Kiss and Mary Gasalee are all gifted/cursed with hearing voices: this is, to the practical mind, obviously the manifestation of some psychiatric disorder, and they are treated accordingly. they are, in fact, 'hearing' the 'voice' of London, catching the run-together internal monologues of her citizenry. Mr Moorcock inserts fragments of 'London's rambling' into Mother London's narrative, creating a bizarre 'dialogue' where there isn't any, and a third party to the conversation when there is. these fragments, then, are like flourishes, garnishings that add an odd flavor to the work; Mr Harrison, on the other hand, constructs his narratives solely from these apparently random musings.

After all why should our goal be the reinstatement of an illusory 'exact' relationship between events and words? If you probe in the ashes you will never learn anything about the fire: by the time the ashes can be handled the meaning has passed on. (The Gift, p231)

it would appear, then, that Mr Harrison's stories play not in the ashes but in the fire, constructing vivid portraits of 'events' from the fractured landscape of images, ideas and people that crowd around any given instant. the result is something strange, fragmented and baroque, but ultimately familiar. if his characters are equally strange, fragmented and baroque, it is because we are merely eavesdropping upon them, catching snatches not only of their lives, but of the world they are integral to, being the sources of our perspectives. his characters are people and, like any of us, have merely stumbled into the world they were born (i.e., written) into: they distort their world by their mere existence in it, but are ultimately unable to shape it. Mr Harrison's approach, admittedly, makes them hard to empathize with; we may get to know these people well or not at all, but either way, while we may find some of them familiar, they are all ultimately strangers. somehow, to my mind, it also makes them more vivid, more 'real': more recognizable as 'people', and not simply 'plot devices' or even 'characters'.

The Quarry can also be found in modified form as the most affecting digression in Mr Harrison's novel The Course of the Heart; informed with rare optimism concerning human nature, the story exists in the interstices of perception and 'objective' reality. A Young Man's Journey to London is a re-working of A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium, another meditation on escapism, hope and desire made all the stranger for being made banal. Small Heirlooms is either an unusual 'ghost story' or a meditation on memories, our own and those of the people we think we know, how the two sets of memories relate and interact and again affect our perceptions. The Great God Pan again re-works (or was re-worked into) a fragment of The Course of the Heart. it also appears to be a reflection of (or on) Arthur Machen's story of the same name; Mr Harrison, however, focuses on the 'primal darkness' that is inherent in our own lack of understanding for our own nature as humans, rather than on an external 'power'. here, the darkness within, we find, manifesting in our senses (figurative, literal, or however else you mean the word), is no less alien than that without. and in The Gift, two people blunder through their lives, stumbling through their loneliness until the story ultimately brings them together in a bizarre 'metafictional' collision. slapstick isn't uncommon in Mr Harrison's work, but rather than being purely comical, in his stories there is something tragic about it, the awkwardness of the physical condition perhaps translating into (or translated from) something more deeply rooted in our inherent humanities.

the 're-worked' stories were a delight for me particularly as they allowed me to revisit key moments of M. John Harrison's longer works without having to re-read those books entirely; all these stories stand alone well, capturing enough of the longer works' spirit to be able to live and breathe on their own; at the same time, they seem to represent an underlying philosophy in Mr Harrison's fiction: that we are only ever privy to fragments, and can never really know the whole story.


M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen: first seven stories

i find it utterly intimidating, doing any sort of review of Mr Harrison's work. Mr Harrison is the sort of writer who has very definite intentions for his stories, but isn't about to tell you what they are; in fact, he seems to delight in keeping everything as obscure as possible for the casual reader, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) his almost overreaching insistence on descriptions of banality. Mr Harrison is the sort of writer who conveys the strange (perhaps numinous) in something as mundane as making a pot of coffee.

well, here goes. if Mr Harrison catches wind of this, i at least think i'm prepared for the mental thrashing that will no doubt follow, if he thinks any of this worth bothering with at all.

the first seven stories in his collection, Things That Never Happen, are brave examples of what a writer can do with fiction. Settling The World starts the book off on a strange note. obviously rooted in more thoughtful, if not at all 'hard' SF, Settling is anything but: it is a disturbing Chestertonian mystery that explores the nature of the divine, and unsettles the reader with the incomprehensible alienness of it. this is followed by Running Down, which takes an assumption of the ridiculous and explores and extends it to its very limits, invoking, from my limited experience, echoes of Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft and Machen, though the element of the 'alien' in this story is perhaps closer to the sort represented by Poe, if no less spectacular or literally 'cataclysmic' than that found in the works of the other three. The Incalling is an exploration of an all too human desperation (as are, in a way, all these stories thus far), and here we begin to see more clearly an inkling of Mr Harrison's take on escapism: what it does 'for' us and, ostensibly to us. The Ice Monkey is deeply rooted in the realities and complexities of human relationships, and is no less strange for it. Egnaro more blatantly examines escapism, and evokes images and rationalizations of geekdom that hit rather close to the mark for this reader. here is a cheekier take on the sort of material Borges explored with Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a bit darker for being much more intimate. next, i must admit to floundering with Old Women, which explores, perhaps, the strangeness of 'old women' in the eyes of men, and yet in the end suggests a basic similarity between the sexes. i must admit to floundering because i do not truly understand what happens in this story, much less what it all means. the portrayal of 'old women', however, while being strange, seems spot on with reality: you've met one or two or all the women in this story in your life, i'll wager. this story was first published in Women's Journal, and i can't help but wonder what those readers thought of this story. finally, i closed the book arbitrarily (and temporarily) on The New Rays, which follows Old Women with a first person account of a woman who begins by seeking desperately for a cure, and ends with her wondering at our own desires and hopes and fears and how they affect who and what we are.

these stories tread the entire landscape of strange fiction without heeding the arbitrary ('fictional'?) boundaries of 'genre'; some of these stories have overt fantastical elements, and one, Egnaro, deals with such elements directly without exactly 'committing' to them. none of them, however, seek to 'escape reality'; instead, Mr Harrison seems to want to bury our imaginations in it, like seeds in fertile (if fetid) earth.

at the same time, none of these stories seem to commit to a single portrait of 'objective' reality either, except, perhaps, to say that the ultimate reality is that defined by the fact that humans are fragile, tiny things lost in an infinitely larger universe they can never hope to comprehend; that this is also, perhaps, the one thing that makes being human matter at all.

this is the first collection of short fiction i have ever found compulsively readable; my approach to short fiction collections has always been to dip into a story or two between longer works. Mr Harrison, however, has had my complete attention with the first seven stories of this book, and if i stop reading the book for now, it is only from a conscious decision to try to keep myself moving through the progressive accumulation of books that are currently acting as dust traps in stacks by my bed.

i don't think i'll be staying away for long.


M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen

i totally love that the copy of M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen i got *does not* have the introduction by China Mieville. now, me, i tend to be one of those freak book lovers who utterly dig all the ephemeral shit of a book--everything from prefaces to introductions, forewords, afterwords, footnotes, endnotes, acknowledgements, bibliographies, blurbs--i have a particular thing for blurbs, whether or not i agree with them, i don't quite know why--author's notes, appendices, those brief author (auto)biography thingies, notes on fonts--i don't necessarily read them all, but i do like having these 'other things' to browse through when i need to take a mental breath from the main content of a book.

M. John Harrison's fiction, however, best speaks for itself. i haven't read Mr Mieville's introduction, but no matter how much i respect Mr Mieville's talents as a writer and have no doubt that he has managed an intelligent, insightful and enlightening introduction to Mr Harrison's work, i have the feeling that any sort of introduction to this book would be a major disservice.

perhaps the best, most acceptable introduction to Mr Harrison's fiction in my mind is the one blurb, provided by Iain M. Banks, that is included with my particular copy of this book. printed on the back cover, Mr Banks says:

M. John Harrison is the only writer on Earth equally attuned to the essential strangeness both of quantum physics and the attritional banalities of modern urban life

now, i don't know if he really is the *only* writer on Earth equally attuned etc, etc, (in fact, i rather doubt that) but Mr Banks has pretty much summed up the wonder of Mr Harrison's work. but if i may add, what may possibly set Mr Harrison apart from other writers who deal with similar material (Mr Banks himself, for instance, has said much on the 'attritional banalities of modern urban life') is that Mr Harrison succeeds in communicating this 'essential strangeness' to my mind, even barring the strangeness of the actual subject matter of each story, by his distinctive prose alone.

possibly my favorite thing about Mr Harrison's prose is the way he deals with dialogue. the way each line flows with the rest of the text without losing the distinctive voice of the character speaking the line. the way each 'spoken' line grazes the main text, grazes the characters and rather than bouncing between them strikes them tangentially, wounding rather than impaling. the words therefore somehow manage to be both evanescent and razor-hard. characters talk 'at' rather than 'to' each other.

the grotesques from Mervyn Peake's Titus books perform similarly random feats of tangential conversation, but in those books the effect is jarring, like the noises and visions of a circus or carnival during its peak hours; in Mr Harrison's fiction, the voices seem to echo long after the people have left, the lights have gone down with the curtains, and the carnival has called it a night.


Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves: part one of N

there's been enough of a gap between now and the last time i broke open Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire for a book or two or three to slip in, and last night i felt meself suffering from a kind of bibliomaniac's option paralysis trying to figure out which book i wanted to read before turning the lights out. as i'd mentioned in me 'other life', Christopher Nolan's The Prestige was just interesting enough to get me to dig-up me old copy of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, and i went ahead and read--actually, re-read--the first chapter.

Mr. Priest, while being an intelligent, eloquent writer of interesting things, here intelligently, eloquently writing about something interesting, just hasn't ever been able to grab me. i've had the book for some time now, and everytime i read the first chapter (last night must have been the third or fourth time), i think 'hmm, this is good stuff. i wonder what happens next?,' put the book down, pick something else up and get back to it in another age.

last night was different because, having seen the movie, i, ostensibly, had some idea of the sort of egads and plot-and-what-if-whoppings i could expect. so i picked up the book, read the first chapter and immediately got a sense of where the movie might fit into the book, thought 'hmm, this is good stuff. i wonder what happens next?,' put the book down, and picked something else up.

yes, i'll probably get back to it in another age.

that 'something else', as it happens, was Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. the first time i broke that book open, i flipped through the pages and thought 'ye gods. how am i supposed to read this?' and, well, as it turns out, the way to do it is to start from the beginning.

really, there probably isn't anything i can say about this book that could possibly match the way it's already been dissected and picked apart, particularly as i've only read Johnny Truant's introduction and Zampano's first bit about The Navidson Record.



for just about anything and everything there is to say about the book, particularly if you want a taste of what to expect. but don't read too much of any of the threads. i may have done just that, and almost spoiled some things for me which only became apparent upon reading the relevant bits.)

i will say this, however: Johnny Truant sets quite a bar for a reader's expectations, and i really don't see how this book could possibly deliver. on the other hand, Zampano's descriptions of the first bits of the nonexistant Navidson Record have already started to prove me wrong: The Navidson Record succeeds for me where Koji Suzuki had failed, creating 'video images' in my head that were, though far more mundane, were also much more haunting than anything in Sadako's curse. (i mean the Suzuki version, from the book, not the Nakata version from the movie.)

that said, i suppose this book can't help but work for me, as i confess to being a bit of an ephemera whore. of course, i've yet to hit the truly whacked out uber ephemeral bits (just a couple or so footnotes and the narrative/text shift from Mr Truant's intro to Zampano's Navidson Record redux so far), so i could very well be wrong, and end-up hating this book utterly.

at the moment, however, the book has my undivided attention.


Apologia: *this* other life suspended indefinitely

starting to feel a bit ragged from 'real world' concerns and such, and haven't been doing a lot of reading (not any in the past few days, in fact). Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire is still on my 'active' list, though more books are starting to demand my immediate attention. i may start reading several books at once, like i used to do, which means that if ever i do continue to do 'real time reviews', they'll probably be snippety things that really don't offer a lot of insight and will only be vaguely 'real time', and will only serve as something to encourage me to actually finish reading the books i pick up.

on the other hand, my 'other life' *has* been occupied by writing, mostly, so i suppose it isn't a total loss, depending on how you look at it.


Interruptus: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled

my reading of Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire continues progressively, if slowly, but i dipped a small toe into Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. twice, actually, goaded by some reviews that say The Unconsoled is more reminiscent or suggestive or something of expressionist films than anything else. or something.

the first time i dipped a toe (i.e., read the first couple or so pages), i was struck by how i couldn't shake the image of the characters as Asian, when the book is, in fact, set in some obscure Eastern (?) European city. for some reason, i couldn't frame my imagination properly, and all the dialogue was spoken with distinctly faux-Asian accents in my head. while that may have to do with the name of the author being jammed into my subconscious than anything else, it bothered me more than it probably should have, and i put the book down not expecting to be drawn to it again anytime soon.

this morning, i was admiring the cover of the Vintage International edition, absorbed in the cool Nosferatu/Caligari-ness of it, and thought to give my little toe another dip. (incidentally, i find the Faber and Faber edition prettier, with a subtler expressionist film edge to the cover, and a less artificial/modern/manufactured book-smell. there's a more elegant feel to the entire book, but it feels oddly flimsier, something i find typical of UK editions: pretty and seemingly delicate, whether or not they are as fragile as they seem.)

thankfully, all the dialogue was now spoken with distinctly faux-European accents in my head.

i now declare that i'll be getting to the book as soon as i can, i.e. after Voice, and probably after Lemony Snicket's The End.

right. Saturday. office. work. groan.


Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire: part three of N: The Cremation Fields

as things keep popping up in my other life, i begin to find it harder and harder to sustain these reviews. my nights are still deeply immersed in Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire, but while that in itself ought to speak volumes about Mr Moore's writing and the story he's telling, it's becoming more difficult for me to put my thoughts on the book to words.

these past few nights, i've been finding myself almost reluctant to return to the book, wearied by the day, eyes heavy with longing for sleep, my brain still a-whirl with the stories that continue to build in my head but refuse to properly translate into words on the page...and yet when i do break open the book, i'm instantly caught up in 'The Cremation Fields's acerbic narrations.

refreshingly, the narrator does not ask for our sympathy: she has done and is doing something inexcusably horrible, her mind coldly calculating all the while, even as she describes in oddly beautiful grotesqueries the world in which she lives. and yet i find myself totally absorbed in learning about her life.

perhaps that descriptive quality of Mr Moore's writing is most remarkable to my mind. his writing rarely falls into the florid-if-precise descriptiveness of, say, Mervyn Peake, preferring a few quick phrases ('Boiled fish her breasts,' for instance) over painting an entire scene for the reader, and yet he manages to create vivid images in the mind's eye that make it easy to imagine an illustrator creating a graphic version of the book.

the book manages to be graphic without being literally illustrated in the way of Mr Moore's more familiar work. the visual quality of a prose work is something that seems amazing in the writings of the likes of Mr Peake, Angela Carter and, more recently, China Mieville, but is downright mystifying in Mr Moore's work. he describes character actions, motivations and ruminations more than actual scenes, and yet the image in the reader's minds eye is startlingly alive with atmosphere and detail.

i find myself thinking that a talented illustrator would find turning this book into a graphic novel a no-brainer, and, ultimately, an inessential and pointless exercise. it is so easy to enter the world of Voice that full illustration seems redundant.

is this, then, escapist fiction? i suppose that depends on how you define the term. there is certainly nothing easy or obviously liberating about the themes and events that populate both 'Hob's Hog' and 'Fields', both stories revealing (and, perhaps, grotesquely reveling in) the 'dirt' of the 'real world', but immersion into the book's world of symbols, images and words is so complete as to rip the reader away from his place on the page, and fly him off to *somewhere else* entirely.


Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire: Part two of N: Hob's Hog and The Cremation Fields

there’s a grotesque sense of relief that comes with the end of ‘Hob’s Hog’. by the time you get to the literal Voice of the Fire at the end of this story, you ought to have become accustomed to the nameless narrator’s pre-literate English; yet it becomes no less trying on the mind, as, even with the limited vocabulary and restrictive, sophisticatedly unsophisticated grammar, Alan Moore manages to twist the words into novel turns of phrase that, while compulsively readable, are so unfamiliar that they aren’t always easy to tease into meaning.

as the fire burned at the end of ‘Hog’, i found myself struggling for air, coming out the other end of the liquid flames to take a deep lungful of ‘The Cremation Fields’.

set 1,500 years later, ‘Fields’ is an almost literal breath of fresh air after Mr Moore’s stifling linguistic tricks in ‘Hog’. the narrator’s voice is more conventional here, and, to be sure, is very distinct from the narrator of ‘Hog’, being, for one thing, capable of more complicated ideas (we find her at the beginning of the story violently initiating what looks to be a ‘long con’), and, even more refreshing to my mind, imbued with a sense of humor. but the poetry, though ‘translated’ and, perhaps, ‘transubstantiated’, feels much the same. like the shifting lines of a well-crafted jazz piece, the rhythm changes, but, somehow, the soul of the overall composition is kept intact.

i should have come to this book with a fresher set of eyes, a less tainted mind. as it is, i keep thinking of everything in terms of what they say about ‘magic’: is magic, then, violent? because Voice, thus far, is so riddled with violence, both mental and physical, figurative and literal, insinuated and barefaced, that at this point it appears that whatever Mr Moore may have to say on the topic of magic—the interplay of symbols and meaning, of language, experience, fact and fiction—that it is difficult to come to any other basic conclusion.

Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, thus far, is as dark as it is illuminating. right now, i can’t imagine coming to the end of this book without that fact still burning in my mind.


Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire: part one of N: Hob's Hog

i’ve found it impossible not to draw comparisons between Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire and Iain Sinclair’s Slow Chocolate Autopsy. published around the same time, Autopsy’s premise bares similarities to that of Voice, both being, in a way, ‘geographical biographies’: Autopsy is the biography of London as told from the perspective of her literal prisoner, Norton; Voice tells the story of Moore’s home of Northampton.

(there, however, it may be necessary to point out, the similarities end, for Moore, if any of the previous reviews that have been written on the work are to be believed, has a deeper intention, using Northampton’s ‘biography’ as structural framework to underpin musings on the principles and concept of ‘magic’.)

on the surface, perhaps, and comparing the first few pages of the two books, one might think that Sinclair’s writing is superior. Sinclair’s words are beautifully chosen, and the sentences and phrases clamber over each other as though to outdo each other in cleverness. by comparison, Moore’s nameless narrator in the opening story of Voice, 'Hob’s Hog', has a harshly limited vocabulary, and is written in a painfully reductive voice, being, for one thing, confined to the present tense and, for another, lacking all but the most basic forms of pronouns (he, she and I) -- there are almost certainly other grammatical and otherwise-structural limitations that i am unable to identify. furthermore, language to Moore's narrator is painfully literal, and so is the world in his mind, such that he is unable to grasp the concept of symbols, and therefore distinguish between ‘truth’ and ‘metaphor’, ‘objective’ and ‘perceived’ reality: dreams and memories and illusions and hallucinations are muddled in with his own physical experiences.

and yet, Hog’s narrator, it seems, has a better grasp of rhythm than Sinclair’s Norton: Norton’s sentences and phrases jar against each other, such that one is tempted to tear apart his fragmented narration and frame each sequence of words as a separate entity. the style has made Autopsy, in my mind, at least, virtually unreadable as a single coherent text. (reading it in bits and pieces, however, is another matter entirely.)

'Hob’s Hog', on the other hand, i find nearly impossible to put down, but for the fatigue that eventually wins out from the difficulty of comprehension. i recall an earlier review, that compared reading 'Hog' to the first time one reads Shakespeare as a child: the words are familiar, but are constructed in a way that makes it difficult for an inexperienced reader to comprehend, and while the words flow beautifully, virtually singing in the mind’s ear, one may find oneself hindered by the incomprehensibility of the strings of words, such that i, personally, occasionally find myself having enjoyed an entire page of text without necessarily having understood what has been said, and therefore having to retrace my footsteps to the last landmark of comprehension, and read it all again.

Neil Gaiman, in his introduction, compared Voice of the Fire to a circle, quoting Alan Moore quoting Charles Fort: you can start at any point in the narrative and proceed to ‘measure the circle’ from there. i’ve only started reading the book and could, of course, therefore be wrong; however, if other reviewers’ readings of Mr Moore’s intentions are to be believed, i find that the beginning of the book is, in fact, the best place to start.

from the first few pages alone, i’ve already begun to ‘glean’ what Mr Moore has to say about language and magic, and if i’m on the right track, there can be no better introduction to the ideas behind the Voice of the Fire than 'Hob’s Hog'.


Interstitium: Angela Carter and Philip K. Dick

haven't been reading as much as i used to, being occupied by work and writing and other things on my mind, but over the past weeks i have managed the first chaps of Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop and Nights at the Circus, plus about a third of Philip K. Dick's Ubik.

i'd meant to say more, but my brain has decided to be reticent on my other life at the moment. hopefully i'll have it all down in the next few days.


Interstitium: Justina Robson's Natural History and others

reading had to take a backseat to other things in the past few weeks since i did the real-time-review of Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword. when i get distracted the way i was in the past few weeks, reading becomes sporadic, and it becomes harder for any one book to hold down my attention for a sufficient period of time for me to actually wrap my head around it enough to actually say/write something worth hearing/reading about the book.

still, i managed to slog through about a bit(ish) more than half of Justina Robson's Natural History before i had to admit that i was just not getting into it enough to continue, much less to write a real-time-review of it.

thankfully, that doesn't really say much about the book. i went through the same sort of thing several times over the course of about three years with M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, until i started it up again about a month ago and surprised myself by getting to the end right before Shriek hit our shores.

Course is now currently one of my all time favorite books, and has, in fact, surpassed Viriconium in my mind.

that said, Natural History is still worth a few brief comments (though i have to say, these will be rather facile compared to the reading i did with Shriek as my head just hasn't been in it).

there are moments in Natural History that i can only describe as Kirbyesque. History's universe is one that is rife with magnificent visions of, of all things, people. it's the sort of bizarrely grandized reimagining of mankind that i myself utterly dig (and which i put down to writing, more or less successfuly, in my short story Generations). and it is at these moments that the book truly scintillates in my mind.

the Forged are akin to New Crobuzon's "remade" in China Mieville's Bas-Lag books; as with Mr Mieville and his remade, there seem to be no limit to the possible shapes and permutations of the Forged other than Ms Robson's imagination. however, unlike that bizarre subgroup of New Crobuzon's population, the Forged are people "remade" from birth for utilitarian, rather than punitive reasons. they are thus "enslaved" by the dictates of "Form" on "Function", an enslavement from which some Forged are actively seeking release.

unfortunately, it is in the smaller, more intimate moments that i feel Natural History loses me. "unfortunately" because, as far as i can tell, it's these "small things" that History, for all the jarring opulence of "big ideas" in the book, is really all about. the concept of Uluru, for instance, leaves me cold for various reasons. and the stories of Zephyr Duquesne and the Forged Corvax (disappointingly, a Forged human who seems to be trying to understand what it means to be "unevolved", or, one may put it, "unForged") just don't hold my attention. i could be wrong: for all its fecundity of incident (sorry, i just love that phrase, clunky as it is), i get the feeling that the first half of the book is nothing more than a set-up for the latter half, and the latter half may be all i need to turn me around on the book.

it may be some time before i get back to it, however, so i wouldn't recommend that you hold your breath for me to pick it up again.

in the meantime, i've dipped into a couple pages of Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (rich, darkly beautiful faerie tale-esque writing, though at times a bit too melodramatic for my taste; i do love it when Ms Carter suddenly drops such throwaway, tongue-in-cheek lines as [paraphrasing] "she had to watch over her little sister in the garden to make sure she did not kill herself"), the entirety of Mervyn Peake's Boy In Darkness (a lovely little nightmare-or-not story of one of young Titus Groan's brief escapes from the castle, featuring one of the most chilling literary villains i've ever read: the Lamb), a couple pages again of Jon Courteney Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies (promising start, but left no real impression in my state of mind), and, most recently, and probably the book i'll stick with for now, M. John Harrison's Light. this will be my second reading of the last book, which i'm doing in preparation for the arrival of Nova Swing.

right. that's it for updates. will see if i can come up with a real-time-review of my second reading of Light. for now it's off to some coffeeshop or other to do an entirely different sort of writing altogether...


Scoop! Jeff VanderMeer Tells All

i have not been completely honest. this blog was more than simply an experiment inspired by Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword...it was also an attempt to insert myself, to participate in the--dialogue?--between Janice and Duncan Shriek. reading the book, i couldn't help the feeling that i was simply another layer to the book's reality...that we are all just layers of Ambergris...

i never imagined just how close i was to the mark, just how far it would go.

it's out of my hands.

prepare yourself. neither Jeff and i can emphasize enough just how important that is...

1. Why should a reader pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anything else?

Because these are survival guides. As the wall between Ambergris and the "real" world becomes ever more tenuous, many millions of people will eventually find themselves actually in Ambergris. That this will cause a real refugee problem for Ambergris' gray cap overlords is secondary to the fact that those people who have not read the books will be much more disoriented and disinclined to survival than those who have read the books. I have waited until now to reveal this deeper purpose in writing the books to avoid being called a crackpot, but since this has been occurring recently in certain quarters anyway, I thought it best to drop the charade, kick over the facade, and just say what's really on my mind.

2. If an autographed and vacuum-sealed copy of your book had been pinned in place of the Vitruvian Man on the Voyager space probe's paneling, what sort of message would we be sending extraterrestrial intelligences about the human race? What action, if any, might they take in response?

What you have to understand is that the entire space program is an elaborate PR hoax perpetrated upon the world's public to distract them from urgent Earth-based problems of lack of resources, overpopulation, and global warming. We are made to feel as if there is some "out there" to which we might eventually travel if conditions on our planet become too difficult. Or, we are given the feeling that there are peoples out there--aliens if you will--who might come rescue us or in some way change our lot on this planet.

Unfortunately, the truth is that a vast black barrier surrounds the Earth at approximately 100,000 miles beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The sun, the moon, and the stars all occur before or at this barrier, much as if a scale model of a solar system (and galaxy) had been built around us. The truth is, the sun does not heat the Earth. Nor does the Moon cause the tides. It is all an artificial construct and the scientists in the know have no clue as to who or what created us or why we are stuck behind this barrier. It's too frightening to think about, and that, again, is why we have all of these distractions, like the so-called space program. Which is more of an inner-space program.

3. What impact might your book have on a preindustrial civilization?

We will probably find out in about 50 to 70 years as global warming continues, as part of some experiment our unknown overlords have in mind, to devastate the planet. I would imagine Ambergris will become very escapist literature by then. But then, when the wall between Ambergris and Earth falls completely apart in about 100 years, it will become full-on survival guide material again. I don't really know if Ambergris will trickle out into this world or if our world will just be devoured whole. No one can really predict these things, or what the fault lines might be. All we can do is prepare for the crash, really. And try, in the meantime, to find moments of small beauty in our lives.

4. Sesame Street and the Muppets can be pretty wonderfully fucked in the head at times. Did they have any role at all to play in the development of your fiction?

The subliminal messages projected out into the unsuspecting populace by both Sesame Street and the Muppets are rather dreadfully "fucked in the head" as you put it. These subliminal messages reinforce the lies about our so-called space program, reinforce the "science" that we are told to believe in even though it is false, and try to relax us into not thinking about the black barrier 100,000 miles out in space. So my "fiction" is actually a reaction against such shows, inasmuch as it acknowledges them at all.

5. What effect might your book have on muppets? Which muppet is best suited, tempermentally, psychologically, physically, to reading your book out loud to children? Would you consider a muppet-read audio book for children?

Given that muppets are viral carriers of subliminal messages, I suppose the muppets would begin to subliminally imprint the reality of Ambergris on the unsuspecting populace. Which would be a good thing for when the wall finally comes down.

Audio is so last-year. But mostly I would not trust the muppets not to be releasing viral subliminal messages contradicting my own core message: that the boundaries between our so-called consensus reality and Ambergrisian subjectivity are disintegrating. That we need to be prepared for the moment when our consensus reality implodes into a fine mist of spores and we find ourselves in a land where everyone is their own world, their own reality...and most likely carted off to a gray cap detainee camp. This is the message I will be taking on my book tour, as well. It's what I'm devoting an entire documentary to, because it's the most important thing in the world right now. Whether anyone else sees that or not.

6. You mentioned Nabokov in your Bat Segundo interview; who else might we find wandering through the pages of your book (apart from the characters and other people actually mentioned in the story, of course)?

Most of my characters are based on Disney or Warner Bros. propaganda tools such as Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. The subliminal text of these propaganda tools is to reinforce the lies about the space program and our Earth's relation to the Sun, etc. I try instead to divert these archetypes to warn people about the divide between Ambergris and Earth falling apart, but I've only been partially successful. The problem is I'm only one person and I don't write that fast. The other side has hundreds of thousands of people working for it at secret locations all over the world.

Most of my stories about Ambergris are fictions using a real setting. Not many people understand that. So except for the people mentioned in The Early History of Ambergris and the entire manuscript of Shriek: An Afterword, you won't find many of those characters when you go to Ambergris. The writer allusions I make are simply to emphasize the fact that echoes of the real world already exist in Ambergris--and these echoes will become more and more prominent as, and it becomes tiresome to have to emphasize this, the divide between our world and theirs weakens.

It is perhaps now time to reveal that I stole Janice Shriek's manuscript off of her desk in the tavern the Spore of the Gray Cap and that the only part of it I really wrote was Sirin's supposed brief afterword at the end. So as far as I know, Shriek: An Afterword represents the only truly true account of Ambergris in any of my books. Early History is close, but I had to embellish it for literary reasons.

7. Have you ever been surprised to find yourself similarly wandering through the pages of someone else's story? If so, in what books, other than your own, to your knowledge, might we find you? If not, what or whose books would you like to be seen in?

Ambergris spreads like a virus. You find it mentioned in history books where ancient historians think they're describing Earth history but they've transposed little leaps of...I don't know what you'd call it? memory? matter?...Ambergris into their story. You also find it in many fictions, which is why novels and stories predating my Ambergris stories actually echo the Ambergris stories. I get exasperated sometimes when people talk about Nabokov, M. John Harrison, the Decadents, and Angela Carter being my "influences". The fact is, I got it right from the source, and I didn't distort the setting or rename it or anything like that--the way many of the others did.

As for what books I would like Ambergris to be in: as many as possible. At first I wasn't sure if I shouldn't in fact disguise the name and some of the facts, like the others had. But over time I've come to see that naming it correctly was very important. Because it does create a ripple effect. Many authors just coming on the scene today have absorbed a piece of Ambergris and allowed it to come out through their pores, into their fiction. And thus the process continues. I think this is the only way we will help prepare and save the human race when the time comes.

8. What has Ambergris got to do with Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius?

Well, again, these are all secondary or tertiary echoes. Poor old bastard Borges was afraid of seeing it properly. It was Ambergris that destroyed his external vision, but he still had his internal vision, so he could never really escape it. All of his work is about attempting to escape from that imagery, from the glimpse he had, looking into a still pool of water in a Buenos Aires courtyard, of Ambergris. It's in his journals if you know how to read them—that moment of clarity when the waters revealed to him the truth of the world. And ever since then he was infected, and became an infecting agent, no matter how he fought against it. It's nothing he could do anything about, except write. He thought he'd write the spores out of him without actually facing the subject head-on. But he was wrong. It wouldn't come out. It was inside of his skin, controlling him, so no matter how he fought it, a little bit of it would leak into the writing. He was strong, but not that strong.

There's not much more that can be said.

10. What the hell were you thinking?

A bit accusatory toward the victim, don't you think? I didn't ask for this. I didn't ask to be shown any of this. Can you imagine what it's like for a child to have this separate world open up around him, to be trapped there for three or even four hours? Except it was longer than that. I've mentioned in interviews that I was lost as a child in Rome for that amount of time, but I've never said where I was during that time. I roamed the streets of Ambergris for two days, and I was never the same. I couldn't go back to being a child after what I saw. All I could do is what Borges did--try to write it out of me. And like Borges, although without his talent, I couldn't face it head-on at first. I wrote "fantastical" fiction, yes, but not about Ambergris. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I found the courage, and only because I had to find some way to write the nightmares out of my brain or I would have gone insane.

So it's always been ironic to me that Ambergris has been the most successful of my creations, and a damnation at the same time, because it's not really my imagination at work. I'm more like a reporter who embellishes. I can't really describe how that feels. Basically, I'm a fake. A forger. An impersonator. And I comfort myself with the thought that, at base, I'm helping people. Come to an acceptance of what's going to happen in the next hundred years. And that helps. Sometimes.

9. What has any of this got to do with squid? Am I wrong in thinking that finding the connection between the squid, the spore and the gray caps is just as vital to our survival as everything else you've said?

The squid are just a social intercourse lubricant, so to speak. They're the sugar that makes the bitter medicine go down sweet, so you don't notice it. The fact is, there are giant freshwater squid in the River Moth, but they're not intelligent and they don't come out onto the land. Any agenda they have is locked away in their squeamous, soft-palate brains. They're vital as a source of meat and byproducts, but I don't believe they otherwise have any importance with regard to the gray caps. I could be wrong, of course. I've only visited Ambergris six or seven times, and on each occurrence it was only for a few hours.

10. Should we expect more from you about Ambergris? or have you exorcised those demons from yourself? will we, in fact, see Zamilon File or whatever's next come to light in the future?

How can you exorcise demons that are literal rather than figurative? How can you put aside a real place that you've visited? Especially given the context of anyone you tell thinking you're a complete crackpot. Zamilon File is a tricky thing because I have to use the gates. And the gates are unpredictable. To gather everything I need to gather for that, in terms of documents. Who knows? Maybe I'll wind up fabricating part of it? Which would defeat the purpose, but I'm not always a brave man. At the same time, I'll be the only cross-Echo whistle-blower in existence if I manage to pull it off. There may be a black barrier over our heads, but there's none between all of these Echoes. It's just tough to see them—see them at the right angles. Otherwise, it just looks like glints of sunlight. Specks of metal rust. A mote in the corner of your eye. See? I'm reduced to cliché when it comes to even beginning to speak of it…You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?

11. To end on a personal note, I'd like to let you know that reading "King Squid" in City of Saints & Madmen made my life a lot more bearable. To know that other people also have this squidanthropy affliction has made me feel much less alone. And I've even thought of showing my friends all of the squid costumes I've knitted for myself over the years.

You know, I have answered your questions with a candor and openness that I have never shown in any other interview. All I ask in return is that you keep your filthy hobbies to yourself.

My apologies. What choice do I have but to be what I am? Would you deny the King his due? I'd thought you of all people would understand...was I wrong? For your sake, I hope not.

Do not underestimate the Squid.

thanks, Jeff, for indulging a nameless hack. and for letting us know the truth, as you have come to know it, behind it all...


NOT a real-time review: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

i know i said Justina Robson, but i've been too busy with other things lately to properly wrap my head around Natural History, so, to tide over any review hungry lurkers out there, here's a short review i wrote a while back that my friend Elmer over at Fu magazine informs me they just published in their latest ish. find copies at your nearest Seattle's Best Coffee or Figaro branch.* it's free.

and watch this space for something cool in the near future. honest.

right. enjoy. or not.

*anyone who's read the printed version might notice a small but significant mistake i hadn't caught until i re-read my review here. in the printed version, i compared Ms Clarke's novel to books written in the 18th century, when in fact, Ms Clarke uses a distinctly Victorian voice, which places the style squarely in the 19th century. my apologies to Ms Clarke, and to anyone who was in any way misled by my error.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

While the Study of Magic remains a perfectly acceptable gentlemanly pursuit, as far as “modern” magicians are concerned, English Magic hasn’t worked for centuries; not since the mysterious figure known as the Raven King stepped out of history into that peculiar realm of faerie tale, legend and myth. The “modern” gentleman magician has therefore learned to content himself with “theoretical” magic, and a legitimate member of the York Society of Magicians, the most respected organization of gentlemen engaged in the Study of Magic of the day, could hardly be expected to even attempt anything so laughable as to actually “practice” magic.

Until, that is, the arrival of two magicians, who would, as prophesied by a suitably ragged and odious street conjuror of dubious magical ability, bring about the Restoration of English Magic.

Into all this fantastically drawn Englishness, Ms Clarke introduces us to two of the most engaging characters to emerge in fiction in recent years: the charming Jonathan Strange and the rather refreshingly unsympathetic personage of Gilbert Norrell. The eponymous characters alone make it all worth the price of admission, but the charm of the novel isn’t confined to the two protagonists. All the other characters leap just as lithely off the page, and while it’s true that some characters commit undeniably vile acts and others genuinely heroic ones, Ms. Clarke lets their deeds speak for her, never submitting to the temptation of pointing out the villains from the heroes, allowing each character equal opportunity for developing a special bond with the reader.

But the one who most threatens to steal the limelight from the main protagonists is Ms Clarke herself. Though the narrator never unforgivably intrudes into the narrative, her “mannered” style of writing, garnished with a liberal sprinkling of “scholarly” footnotes designed to tell stories within the story and enrich the book’s internal reality, may be a bit excessive for some readers. Imagine Jane Austen if she’d written an epic-length genre-fantasy illuminated with the kind of footnotes that are as likely to be found in dull 19th century social treatises as in Terry Pratchett’s wildly successful Discworld novels. However, perseverance has its rewards. The writing is always graceful, the footnoted digressions never fail to entertain, and the steadily building pace eventually sweeps the reader along with the story. In the end, the reader is drawn willingly from one chapter to the next, until he or she has nowhere left to go and nothing else to do but reluctantly turn the last page and finally close the book. Or, quite possibly, read it all again.

This book is a delightful dance of characters and events, an alluring blend of fantasy and history, social commentary and satire that is intricate without being confusing, intelligent without being forbidding.

What it amounts to, in summary, is an 19th century novel of manners written with unobtrusive yet definite 21st century sensibilities.

And Magic. Large, heaping dollops of it. And that’s a good thing.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, originally published as a single volume, is also available from Bloomsbury books in a more manageable boxed set of three volumes.

If you liked Ms Clarke’s novel, you might also enjoy:

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) by Neal Stephenson

The Penultimate Peril, book the twelfth of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket



while i really think the book can speak for itself much better than anyone else and can stand up to any set of expectations you can throw up in defense against it, i'm nonetheless a bit worried about the possiblity that i might have created a totally wrong-headed set of expectations for it, and in that sense, Jeff VanderMeer's brief comment over on his blog (trust me, it's somewhere in that linked post) about my (series of) review(s) of Shriek: An Afterword is absolutely essential for anyone crazy enough to have thought to base their decision whether to read the book or not on anything i've said. it's much more level-headed, for one, and, more importantly, it's easier on the eyes.

in retrospect, my own analysis may have been a tad bit overwrought (ha! a tad bit?!?), and the best thing about Shriek, despite everything i've said which suggests the contrary, is how beautifully simple it is...but it was fun (for me, anyway) dissecting it the way i did, looking and finding and peeling-off layers that may never have been intended nor, perhaps, been really there, and, you never know, it might actually add something to your own reading experience.

right. anyway, what i'd really wanted this post to say (before i found Mr VanderMeer's comments and link and effectively derailed my mental composition for this post) is that the other reality has finally (expectedly) caught-up with this blog... i'm going to be starting the next series of (increasingly inaccurately named) real-time reviews having had quite a bit of a head start on anyone keeping tabs on this blog.

i.e., i'd already started reading the next book down my to-be-read pile (Justina Robson's Natural History) two nights ago, but haven't gotten around to really thinking about my reactions to it...you know, real world issues, work, all that reality catching up and getting in the way...

but i'll post the first installment as soon as i can properly wrap my head around writing a proper real-time-review entry. right. back to the other life...


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part several of several

done. Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword is now off the reading pile. but it won’t be going into the done and forgotten pile, no sir. it’s off to the read-but-to-be-read-again pile, which includes his other books, Mervyn Peake’s and M. John Harrison’s.

that’s no small praise.

but i’m getting ahead of myself. i just want it clear that the following ‘review’, due to my own subjective enjoyment of the book, is going to be mucho biased in Shriek’s favor. still, i’d like to think i can throw a bone or two for you to pick on and decide for yourself whether it’s worth your time.

right. brace yourself, this is going to be a long one, even for me.

i try not to, but most reviewers tell you what a book is about so they can pick cleanly at its meat. i was going to do that here, but i chickened out at the last minute. and try not to listen to that guy in the comments section. (good grief you’re actually going to say it.) just because he wrote the darn thing doesn’t mean he’s any more reliable than anyone else at telling you what this book is about (apologize dammit! apologize!)

why am i so reluctant when i could just as easily have said ‘it’s about two possibly whacked-out and therefore unreliable sibling narrators and the people around them who may or may not have affected the life and history of the City of Ambergris and how the life and history of the City (including the ‘war of the Houses’ and the obscure and distant and uber-creepy ‘cataclysmic’ event called the Silence and something strange and new called the Shift) has affected said siblings and the people around them and how a war and the gray caps and at least a half dozen other things are muddled into everything and further help change everything (or possibly just the siblings and/or attendant characters) some more’ or possibly, thematically, even ‘it’s about mysteries; the nature of ‘truth’ and how we come upon it, whether through observation or imagination, scholarship or madness; about life, and death, and change; about different ways to have faith in the numinous; the numinous; about the complexities of love and hate and about the relationships between two possibly whacked-out and therefore unreliable sibling narrators and the people around them etc., etc…’ or gone to literary tropes and called it ‘a love story; a tale of the bizaare, the alien; an epic tale of history, war and strange machinations; a comic/tragic/satiric tale of politics and society, of artists and scholars, priests and merchants; a biography of several people all at once’?

or, even, ‘it’s about squid. and mushrooms’?

well, simply put, it’s because what this book is about could just as easily be what it isn’t about.

here’s the thing: it looks to me like whenever Mr VanderMeer writes about Ambergris, he plays an extreme version of the game (possibly) invented by Jorge Luis Borges in his Ficciones. Mr Borges’ game is pretty straightforward: essentially, he took the ‘easy way out’ to write ‘fantasy’—i.e., rather than write stories from or set in a fantastic world, he would invent the ‘documentation’ of those stories… or something like that. here, let him tell you himself, from his Ficciones:

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverished extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary.

in a way, Mr VanderMeer is playing the fool to Mr Borges’ emperor. he does, in fact, go on to write ‘five hundred pages’ (in Shriek, it’s about 345, but add to that City of Saints and Madmen as well) developing ‘an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes’ (i.e., with the emphatic statement ‘it’s about squid! and mushrooms!’), but rather than taking the usual route to writing a fantasy story (a story which would then, ostensibly, become the source of Mr Borges’ ‘imaginary books’), Mr VanderMeer takes a ‘once-or-twice-removed’ approach and writes, instead, those very ‘imaginary books’ that Mr Borges might then talk about, allowing the ‘imaginary writers’ of those books to comment on themselves and each other…and on the books.

Mr VanderMeer, however, adds another twist, or layer: unreliability. i am, of course, talking only of impressions (mine) and don’t really know anything about the actual motives (Mr VanderMeer’s) behind the writing choices made in this book, but it seems to me that he is operating on the principle that a writer’s omniscience belies the existence of the world he has constructed. after all, who can know everything about the world he lives in, or any other world for that matter?

in a way, that factor of unreliability, and the source of it (which i refuse to elaborate on here; you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what i’m talking about) reminds me of the games played by certain of M. John Harrison’s characters in The Course of the Heart. well, alright, here’s a bit of a spoiler: in Course, Lucas Medlar and Pam Stuyvesant play a game of imagination which is the ultimate expression of their desire to grasp at something numinous, to find comfort…it could be just such a game, it is possible to think at the end of the book, that, whether intentionally or not (and neither Lucas nor Pam in that other book, i think, do it intentionally), the siblings Janice and Duncan Shriek are playing.

and here, i imagine, would lie the book’s ultimate glory… and final frustration. at the end of the book, we find ourselves holding handfuls of the beautifully (intricately) detailed fragments of a puzzle that fit together perfectly (seamlessly) in so many different ways and still form a coherent picture. thus, in retrospect, we find we must call into doubt all the revelations we took for granted in the book as we read it.

certainly, while raising quite a few more questions, this book does hold answers to many questions concerning the world of Ambergris that were raised by City of Saints and Madmen, but only for readers who are willing to make potentially dangerous assumptions. and this is by no means the same book as City: in Shriek, Mr VanderMeer has created something entirely different, if cut from the same (if more mushroom-infested) cloth.

that is not to say that the book feels incomplete or in anyway unsatisfying, but we are confronted by all the unavoidable limitations one comes upon when seeking ‘truth’ in any of its forms.

of course, it could also be true that i am being much too clinical about the whole thing: the book can, in fact, be enjoyed for the sheer visceral effect it has on the reader. Mr VanderMeer has not written an easy piece of fiction in Shriek. but part of the gift of Shriek is in presenting us with all the uneasiness of our own entrapment in ‘reality’ in a beautiful, arguably easy-to-swallow (for the more literarily adventurous reader, perhaps) package.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword is, quite simply, the most complex yet viscerally pleasing and ultimately rewarding experience i’ve had with fiction since reading The Course of the Heart. and like that other work, it may well be that the next time i read it, i’ll have totally different things to say about it.

invoking Neil Gaiman’s Cain, from his Sandman series of graphic novel, he says ‘it’s the mystery that lasts, not the solution.’ (or something to that effect.)

in that sense, Mr VanderMeer has written a book that is also a mystery; this, i believe, is why Ambergris, of all the fictional haunts i’ve visited, positively resonates; and, yes, i believe both that world and this book will (or, at least, should) last.


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part seven of several

Everyone we cared about was dead or lost to us.

you can feel it in the words (and in the thinness of the righthand part, especially compared to the lefthand part, of the book when you hold it open at the page i left off of last night): it's almost over.

i suppose i could have 'closed the book' on Shriek: An Afterword last night; 'closed the book,' put it and anyone having bothered to read, having been bothered to read and having been bothered by reading this blog out of their misery...

nope, couldn't do it. let me have just one last night in its pages...it's gotten disturbingly cozy for me in there...


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part six of several

after the brief intermission of part five of several, i consumed three chapters of Shriek: An Afterword in a single, febrile flurry of reading before sleep once more sank her talons through the tissue of my eyes.

i could argue that the adrenaline of the first two chapters of part 2 lingered for me past the intensity of those pages, carried me through the succeeding chapters even as Janice returned to the relatively banal descriptions of life-going-on in post-war Ambergris, and this may be true. however, as the pace slows considerably, jarringly after those events (of the first two chapters of part 2), restored to an unseemly sense of normalcy, it is also true that a sense of weariness has come upon the narrations of this Janice, as though the simple act of remembering those events has drained her; there is a relief to having passed that point, but it isn't all a relief.

while this Janice (and this Duncan) is (are) essentially the same as the one(s) we met in part 1, we know her (them) now well enough, it seems, to look at that Janice (and that Duncan) in a new light. and we begin to have a disquietingly comfortable sense of what this book is really about, even though the single objective truth behind it all remains, if it exists at all, for us, as it does for the characters, ultimately elusive.


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part five of several

a brief pause between chapters 1 & 2 of part 2 of Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword:

tales of Ambergris, as befits a city borne of an aesthete as Boschian as it is Hawk-Alfredsonian, are richly textured and brightly hued, if often illuminated by a greenish phosphorescence and accompanied by a sweetly rancid odor, occasioned, at times, by a purple hint of lime. thus has Shriek: An Afterword been so far to the mind of this reader, but never yet more so than in the opening sequences of the second part of that book.

war has broken-out (and so had the skies outside my apartment, as if to provide a backdrop of rather ho-hum sturm und drang the Janice-Duncan balancing act thankfully, for all the violence of the relevant sections of the narrative, never allows the text to fall too seriously into), and as Janice and Duncan and all Ambergris goes about the rather tiresome business of surviving the war on a daily basis (or not, as the case may be), we are drawn head-long into the narrative, right through an explosive flurry of strange weaponry, stranger behavior and still-stranger diets, always being reminded that the worst is yet to come

given the sheer cheek of Ambergrisians (and the book thus far), it isn't all that hard to imagine.


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part four of several

i’ve just turned the last page on part one of Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, and it seems appropriate here to go over some of the things i’ve said about the book thus far:

first off, i should like to amend what i said earlier about the menace being in Janice’s and Duncan’s words: not true. the menace does not emanate from the words, but from the spaces between the words

i also failed to note earlier that the initial impression of being a ‘difficult book’ fades soon after the first few pages, and reading the book soon feels as natural as talking to yourself, or eavesdropping on a conversation in your head, or waking from a dream to a dialogue between ghosts over your grave...

a kind of frustration remains, however, though it no longer lies in Janice’s stultified narration (her ‘false starts’ now fail to interrupt the flow of her narrative; instead, they have become welcome markers, signposts on the strange journey through this life in Ambergris & its environs, reminding us of where we are in the overall scheme of the book; Duncan’s interruptions, while still occasionally jarring, have also become a welcome commentary: apart from being ‘illuminating,’ they also have the almost calculated tendency to echo our own sentiments, such that when he exclaims ‘get back to the underground adventure!’ or something to that effect, we find ourselves in complete agreement); no, the frustration now stems from the impression of Janice’s (and by postmodernist extension, Jeff VanderMeer’s; or is it the other way around?) seemingly overwrought ‘checklist’ approach to her (his) narrative: have i told you of my time at the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Hospital? no, i don’t believe so, and yes, i met someone there you may remember from City of Saints and Madmen…inconsequential, perhaps, perhaps not, but undeniably necessary to the integrity and interplay of this and that work, not to mention an interesting and fun way to weave them all together…aren’t i simply too clever for my own good?...check.

mind you, while it arouses suspicion, it isn’t out of place: i wouldn’t be at all surprised if Janice really did have a mental checklist of all the things she wanted to put in this ‘afterword.’ (and the fact that i have been referring to Janice and Duncan as being the ‘real’ writers of this ‘afterword’ is either a testament to Mr VanderMeer’s talents, or to the questionable state of my own reality-testing.)

either way, nevermind: the suspicion bears mentioning but is of no consequence. Because, it seems, Mr VanderMeer really is too clever for his own good.


it still manages to surprise me (in a good way) how the books i read seem to send tendrils into the ‘real world’…today, as i turned the final pages of the first part of Shriek: An Afterword, and the first move had been made in what would ‘later be known as the War of the Houses,’ the skies over the coffeeshop to which i’d decided to take the book and my reading this Sunday afternoon turned the sudden, sickish shade of a gray cap, but refused to break.

it was pleasantly surreal, this interplay of realities. i’m glad this universe isn’t above engaging in such paltry games with us mere mortals.


at this point, it must be obvious that this book has thoroughly absorbed me, and it no longer seems important to me that this book deliver its promised revelations; or, perhaps, it already has delivered: the book has invaded my reality; even now, i feel it is an experience i should have regretted foregoing (if it were possible to miss something and still know what one missed), and i cannot now imagine scraping the spores of Ambergris from my flesh before reaching the end…


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part three of several

Chapter 6…i should have warned you that i’m a slow reader. and here i am pausing yet again after just one chapter. will i ever finish reading this book? i’m sure I shall, eventually, because this is a book i will not allow to be waylaid; even if i had only thought to dip a toe in the first few pages, even if i had not intended to dive into its oddly hued waters, i could not have helped but be swept up and away by these words. however, it is also true that i am reluctant to see this book end, to have to turn the final page and set the book aside at last; and then, also, there are times when i can’t help but stop, when the desire to let a few pages, a few paragraphs, a few words sit on my mind’s tongue like a mouthful of wine overpowers the desire to rush headlong into the next few pages, paragraphs, words. when i have to stop and think, rethink, and think again on what the pages, paragraphs, words have to say.

Chapter 6, and i find i have to make just such a stop.

Chapter 6 is a visit to the cemetery, to old friends’ graves, made all the more poignant by its moments of humor and passion both; the entire book thus far has been such a visit to the past, but here, at last, we make a visit with Janice Shriek grounded firmly, for us, in her present. here we have our first image of Janice and Ambergris as they were when she wrote her part of this book…and with that image, for me, came a realization.

all this time, i’d thought Janice and her brother Duncan had been tiptoeing about the ‘core’ of this book. perhaps. but having seen Janice in her state as she broke from the afterword she had been writing to take a walk through Ambergris, revisit her ‘site of triumphs’ and those graves in her mind, i wonder if that is, in fact, the case.

instead, i think now of Janice not tiptoeing about the ‘core’ of this book (and might it not be, after all, too late to be tiptoeing?), but limping through her past, a past that has changed herself and Duncan and their friends and their enemies and Ambergris, changed their entire world so much that even if it weren’t for her age, even if it weren't for the pain in her leg, could she possibly not have limped?

it is a viciously poignant revelation, such that when she proclaimed ‘I am Janice Shriek’ at the end of the first part of this chapter, a mental shiver traveled down my spine, and decided to setup camp at its base long enough, at least, for me to set these words down...


Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword: part two of several

i remember once being nocturnal; even now, with my near narcoleptic tendencies, sleep is hard for me, or on me, such that it falls on me rather than i into it. still, these days nights have become a clockwork struggle just to keep my eyes open, overpowering me even though i might be enjoying the silken wrappings of a good book, something that once was enough to keep the Sandman at bay even as the City herself began to stir, reminding me that i, too, needed to sleep by herself waking-up.

so it was that last night, after i turned the last page of chapter 5 of Shriek: An Afterword, i put the book aside thinking i’d only be giving my eyes a moment’s rest (taking my cue from Janice’s own decision to stop typing for a while), that i would continue my strange journey through Ambergris that very night… and sleep promptly fell upon me and swept my wakefulness away like some raptor swooping down, having been perched upon my bedrail all that time, in wait for that vulnerable moment when...

for an indeterminate period of time, i was (and here i resort to cliché because, after all, being a cliché doesn’t keep something from being true) dead to the world; for though my days float placidly upon the river Lethe, nights are sheer Oblivion.

and then the nightmare came, the most vivid and complex nightmare i’ve had in a while.

the details of that nightmare have, perhaps, no place here, having, at least superficially, nothing to do with what i imagine was their source. and the source i imagine is this: Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword.

it isn’t that the last two chapters i read (4 and 5, respectively) were in any particular way horrific; in fact, after a pithy summary of Ambergris’ bizarre yet familiar (or bizarrely familiar) history, Janice goes on to describe a relatively mundane version of Ambergris that is most reminiscent for me of the decadence of Oscar Wilde, or of the satirical end-times of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (though my reading of the latter is as yet, admittedly, incomplete, my last attempt having been waylaid by the arrival of the very book i now find myself immersed in), apart from which these chapters contain nothing more frightening than going off into the woods and finding your way home, a description of Duncan’s scholarly dealings at Blythe (in the midst of which Duncan makes his lengthiest interruption of Janice’s text thus far), and the relatively placid, if at times argumentative ‘conversations in the park’ that her brother Duncan used to have with the (ex-) Truffidian Antechamber Bonmot.

and yet, for all their revelations in these last two chapters, the siblings still seemed to be tiptoeing about what i’ve begun to imagine as the core of the book…and we come at last to the main point of this particular entry, which we’ll get back to after one more brief digression.

despite my affinity for all things dark, dreary, disturbing and otherwise, er, creepy, i don’t read as much horror fiction as you might imagine. the reason for this is simple: most of those books do not achieve in me the desired effect. to put it bluntly, they don’t scare me.

but something about Jeff VanderMeer’s writing, particularly in this book, does. not in the way that might prevent one from getting up to go to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night, but in a way that’s subtler, more insidious.

for all its efficiency (note: not economy; his writing may not be as florid as that of some other writers i can think of, but neither does it strike one as being wholly succinct or strictly pragmatic), Mr VanderMeer’s prose exudes a strange, indescribable menace, even in the relatively enlightening or even cheery moments of the narrative, such as those that tell us that, yes, love does exist in this bizarrely (subtly) skewed world (yes, the siblings Janice and Duncan do love each other in the complicated way siblings do, and they love other people and other people love them, as displayed in these chapters).

maybe it’s just me; maybe it isn’t something other readers will find in these pages; still, that subtle menace is an utter delight, and i look forward to returning to Ambergris as soon as it’s dark.