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The Metaphysics Of Narrative: M. John Harrison’s Uncanny Canon
Calum Barnes , October 11th, 2020 09:09

From writing for New Worlds in the 60s to his unfair contemporary reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’, M. John Harrison has consistently pushed at the margins of literature. Calum Barnes reads the English author’s latest novel and a new career-spanning collection of short stories from Comma Press to uncover a writer that few can match

Photo (c) Hugo Glendinning

M. John Harrison has long laboured under the unfortunate moniker of being a ‘writer’s writer’. This has always been reviewer code for ‘writer not many people read’. Active since the sixties, first published in New Worlds magazine alongside other British New Wave luminaries like J.G. Ballard, Harrison has always had a devout fanbase, eager to proselytise the wonder of his texts and convert people to their creed. When I was an undergraduate, my flatmate was one such fan, always trying to foist the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy on to me. I was too busy reading what my lecturers anointed as ‘literature’. After university, I too became a disciple, a late convert.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Harrison’s latest novel, features a cult who catalogue strange water phenomena, furtively passing copies of their bible, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to potential disciples. The protagonist Shaw has had something of a post-mid-life crisis, absconding from Hackney home to sleepier Richmond to begin anew. After a chance meeting in a graveyard, he finds himself employed on a houseboat running mysterious errands for Tim who runs The Water House blog, an amateur venture in which peculiar riverside sightings are connected to archaeological sites in Mexican cave complexes.

This seemingly eccentric premise might seem to confirm why Harrison has always haunted the peripheries of British letters. It perhaps has more to do with his work always hovering on the edges of different genres. His last novel, Empty Space, the final instalment of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, spliced space opera with a more emotionally freighted realist but near-future narrative. On the surface, The Sunken Land inhabits our world. It could, should you wish to grasp for such vacuous critical nomenclature, be called a Brexit novel. Not that Harrison would have aspired to write a book that would be so neatly characterised; his vexed relationship to genre can be summed up by that old Grouch Marx joke: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

This lifelong eschewal of genre classification is evident in Settling the World, a new selection of short stories spanning the course of his career published by Comma Press. It runs the gamut of all the bookshop categories: science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction. Some even seem to create new genres altogether. ‘Running Down’ can only be described as ‘geological horror’.

Harrison is fascinated not just in occupying the borderlands of genre but also with characters who live on the margins. The selection brims with people that have fallen between the cracks, exiles from societies that could never accommodate their eccentricities. From the inexplicable mental decline of an old university friend in ‘Running Down’ to the old refugee of ‘The East’ whose estrangement is as much about linguistic dislocation as geographical, his stories frequently evoke the works of Ann Quin and Alexander Trocchi in their affinity with the outsider and their commitment to literary innovation, placing him firmly in the British experimental tradition.

The evolution of Harrison’s prose can be traced across the stories, the steely, mannered prose typical of the British New Wave giving way to the warmer, more supple sentences that mark his late style. The philosophical concerns become more submerged. Instead of God being towed from the dark side of the moon to preside over a motorway in the title story from 1975, in later stories you can find yourself blindsided by an offhand metaphysical aperçu that can fundamentally alter the tenor of a piece. Harrison’s chameleon-like ability to inhabit any genre also fulfils a philosophical purpose. Rather than just mere showmanship for the sake of it, it is motivated by the belief that the metaphysics of a narrative are governed by their genre, a truth Harrison has deftly revealed across his many books which have always sought to dismantle the putative genres they are written in. The plasticity of genre is akin to the plasticity of the reality we all inhabit.

So what genre does The Sunken Land fit into? We’re at first lulled into the solace of a realist novel. Shaw is piecing his life together after an unspecified crisis. He’s started seeing a woman called Victoria but neither of them seem particularly committed, their desires festering beneath the surface. After Victoria’s mother passes away, she moves into her old house in an unnamed town in Shropshire. “It’s very Brexit up here,” she writes to Shaw. As Shaw zips across the country to “old places, post-colonial, post-industrial and… fully post-historical,” on behalf of the shadowy operations of Tim’s houseboat, Victoria is ingratiating herself with the locals who are also infatuated with the Water House blog and the curious theories it peddles.

Against the backdrop of exhausted towns, in various stages of de-industrialising decay under a perpetual smirr of rain, people desperately search for mythologies to explain their reality, to satisfy yearnings they can’t articulate. A particularly humdrum uncanny is evoked, the gestalt of the small town high street paranormal shop with it kitsch occult merchandise and dusty shelves of self-published books on supernatural phenomena and arcana. Throughout there are sightings of mysterious translucent white people with a greenish hue. Are these water babies escaped from Kingsley’s book? Both Victoria and Shaw bear witness to inexplicable incidents: the waitress from Victoria’s local café descends into a shallow pool of water and vanishes and Shaw is party to the excavation of one of these water-dwelling creatures from a garden pond. Now it seems that reality finds itself having to chase its own mythology before the borders between them irrevocably dissolve. Like the rest of Harrison’s work, its resonances with our world are somehow simultaneously obvious and obscure but they hit with an emotional immediacy that few writers can match.

In Don DeLillo’s The Names, another novel concerned with a mysterious cult, the archaeologist Owen Brademas remarks, “If I were a writer, how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins. You are the ghoul of literature.” M. John Harrison is certainly the ghoul we need at this moment as those fringe cultic energies he’s always narrated with such elliptical grandeur become more and more mainstream.

M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is published by Gollancz. Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 is published by Comma Press