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.


M. John Harrison's Signs of Life: an introduction of sorts

it may only be because the copy of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life i own is the one in Anima (which publishes Signs together with The Course of the Heart), but i feel compelled to draw parallels and make comparisons between the two books. for instance: the first detail of Signs, the very first thing we are told, is the narrator's name. in fact, we learn, the narrator has two of them:

My name is Mick Rose, which is why a lot of people call me 'China'.

Mick's, or China's, depending on your preference, is a more amiable voice than that of the narrator of Course, whose name we *never learn* throughout that book's 200+ pages. there is a more familiar humor in Mick's voice; it seems, perhaps, more natural, more of the 'average joe'; more of the wakeful day than the dreaming night, one might say; more modern, more 'hip': Mick's voice makes him feel more grounded, less inclined to question his reality the way Course's narrator seemed predisposed to even in childhood:

When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever event was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it. (The Course of the Heart, page 7.)

interesting counterpoint, yes? also rather obvious for certain aspects of this discussion: Abigail Nussbaum in an earlier review noted something to the effect of The Course of the Heart being a nongenre 'fantasy' and Signs of Life being a nongenre 'science fiction' story. if that is, in fact, the case, the way the two stories begin, the way they differ from the very first word and proceed from there, all these things make an interesting comment on the 'genres each story chooses to transcend', if i may put it that way.

these two stories, in that light, appear to be companion pieces, Mr Harrison's own commentary on the elements that are used to define the two genres and ultimately distinguish them from each other. the value of collecting the two stories into one volume appears to be based in part on the substance behind Ms Nussbaum's analysis and this subsequent comparison. the publishers of Anima, however, also make it clear that the decision to collect the two stories in one volume is based on something else:

When a writer like M. John Harrison looks at love, you know the results will be unusual and compelling, evocative and imaginative, dark, depressing and transcendent. Here in one volume are his two classic love stories...fantastical romances, quests, thrillers - and wholly M. John Harrison. (Anima, from the back of the book.)

clearly, there is a *thematic* intersection between the two stories, and this seems yet another good reason to look at the two stories as complementary, to examine one in light of the other. however, the differences, to my mind, also dictate something else, that must be just as important to the appreciation of either work: the two stories must be taken separately, on their own terms.

this seems a painfully obvious conclusion to make of any two works, but it is one i feel i must state: having read The Course of the Heart a long time ago, it continues to resonate in my mind as one of the most beautiful and interesting stories i have ever read; unfortunately, the resonance of that work now informs my reading of Signs of Life. (putting the stories together in one volume doesn't quite help.)

by stating that one obvious fact, i am attempting to exorcise those resonances; of course, it may not be possible (might even be wrong-headed, come to think of it), given that the presence of any one thing is supposed to deform the universe, and our previous experiences make impressions on how we perceive later experiences. but i would, at the very least, like to try.

Mr Harrison's skill as a writer, thankfully, makes it possible to succeed: though his writing in Signs shows the same sort of attention to detail, informed as it is with the same 'low latent inhibition' suggested by his writing elsewhere, Mick 'China' Rose has a particular voice that is able to incorporate that aesthetic in what appears to be a more 'practical' or, perhaps, more 'conventionally rational' mindset.

to put it another way, The Course of the Heart felt like it was still somewhere between Viriconium and the 'real world'...Mr Harrison's writing in Signs suggests it exists further on the other side of the spectrum. which pushes me harder, personally, to try to read Signs as a distinct entity, and not simply a 'companion' to Course.


Inter Alia: Alan Wall, Iain M. Banks, Daniel Handler

Things That Never Happen took so much of my attention that i really couldn't say much about my digressions--well, nothing i thought sensible enough to post; but here, allow me to try to recover some of my thoughts at the time: Alan Wall is an amazingly sharp writer, and between his first novel, School of Night and his latest, China (both of which i'd only really dabbled in, reading only the first few chapters of each book), you can see the progress he's made over the years. both are well-crafted, beautiful works, but there's a comfort with the rhythm and flow of China that i couldn't find in School. Mr Wall's writing, appropriately enough for China feels like 'jazz when it works'...but i couldn't continue; everything just felt too, well, linear after the scattershot-genius of Things; i was in the wrong mindset for it, so i'll probably have to come back to Mr Wall's books some other time.

Iain M. Banks' State of the Art opens rather tepidly, imho. Road of Skulls seemed too embroiled in its own wit, and while it had its moments, the ending didn't quite 'linger like smoke rising from a crematorium' as Publishers Weekly put it over on Amazon.com. Road just wasn't as clever as it thought it was, to my mind. A Gift from the Culture started out much more promisingly; i've always admired Mr Banks' wit, but always thought it worked best when 'being clever' wasn't allowed centerstage. i got through a couple pages of A Gift, but i'd only picked the book up to keep me company while i waited for someone, and when she arrived, i closed the book, set it aside, and haven't gone back to it since.

Daniel Handler's Watch Your Mouth was my most recent digression before going back to the beginning of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life. i am utterly distressed by (read: i absolutely love) Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, though my reading mindset has thankfully (read: regrettably) of late kept me away from finishing the series off by reading The End. Mr Handler is Mr Snicket's 'representative' as i understand it, and is no less gifted, i hear, with wit. no doubt about it: the writing in Watch Your Mouth feels like ASoUE for adults--with healthy doses of sex and everything; sans Baudelaires, of course, though i expect i would not be surprised at all to find a hook-handed man, powder-faced twins, a person who looks neither like a man or a woman, or dirty old men with eyes tattooed to their ankles lurking about in the shadows of the book's pages.

i feel like i missed a 'digression' or two; ah well: all this more or less gets you up to speed with where i'm at, and brings us back round to Mr Harrison's Signs of Life.


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.


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.