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.

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