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.