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.

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