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.

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