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.

No comments: