M. John Harrison's Signs of Life: in the end...

if there were ever any doubts in my mind as to Mr Harrison's ability to deconstruct, demolish and degrade the most opaque, sturdy and 'dignified' (i use each of these words, particularly the last, in the loosest, most forgiving sense) of personalities, having produced his most apparently solid, full-spirited characters in Signs of Life, such doubts have been laid to rest, terminally and irresurrectibly, by the latter half of that book. though the book started out on an almost optimistic note, infused with the enthusiastic life-energy of love in its early, pre-terminal stages, the book soon enough goes dark; the stress of the book eventually begins to weigh on the apparently seamless surfaces of each character; fracture lines, old and new, begin to show; if i had not known how this book was to end before hand, the ending would most certainly have been forgone long before i reached the 'climax'.

Signs of Life is a stilted rhapsody full of eccentric but earthy melodies and odd rhythms generated by the tinkling of test-tubes, the clattering of a defective centrifuge and the diseased moaning of laboratory vermin (and, of course, Tom Waits' gravel-throated crooning); an earthquake-damaged mosaic, the most brilliantly-colored tiles falling first off the wall to shatter noiselessly on the ground, to be hidden by the grass, or to sink into the soggy earth; a collage of jarring images or a jar of collaged images, a narrative constructed from the fragments of a life, brought together by the search for meaning imposed by a tragically human perspective. in the end, M. John Harrison to my mind warns us of the dangers inherent in attempting to define ourselves with our dreams: whether we deny our dreams or cling to them, the effect is fatal; having no dreams, however, seems no better. what then, are we to make of the signs of life? what are we to make of ourselves, and how?


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