Intelligent and eerie, masterfully crafted and inconspicuously relevant, the new M. John Harrison novel draws a lot from his previous work – from "CliIntelligent and eerie, masterfully crafted and inconspicuously relevant, the new M. John Harrison novel draws a lot from his previous work – from "Climbers" to his recent flash fiction, via "The Course of the Heart", "Signs of Life" and even the Kefahuchi Tract novels – subliming the already seen and now perfectly ripe elements of his prose into the essence of almost alchemical quality. Readers who have already tried the previous batches will recognize its taste, but even they are at risk of becoming properly dizzy from these unique literary fumes.
There are two protagonists, who are trying to find themselves and finally take hold of their lives, but it seems they’re way better at losing themselves in the world they occupy but fail to understand; there’s a great deal of urban landscape and countryside which almost pose as the additional protagonists of the novel, sometimes playing enemies, sometimes friends; there are strange and disturbing, even menacing events that cannot be (easily) explained; there are confusing, koanlike dialogues, pretending to clarify things, but really only making them murkier, and most of the time the membrane between the quotidian and the extraordinary, the aberrant, is semiporous, so that you, as well as the main characters of the novel, cannot tell for sure which is which.
All these things are characteristic of Mr. Harrison’s writing, they are his finely honed semiotic tools, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t pushed the envelope a bit further: in "The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again" he undertook the risk of applying the approach he mostly uses in short stories, without adjusting it to the length of a novel, and thus leaving the readers to fight it or go along with it, and, consequentially, enjoy it. It's not his style I’m talking about – it is surprisingly relaxed, while maintaing its usual qualities of being elegant and sharp – but his ability to create a condensed and constant sense of wonder and anxiety, of nausea induced by depriving the readers of enough firm ground of cause and effect to stand on. In such stories there is no jumping board that would send you into the pleasant waters of an imagined world, the plank you stand on is floating on a liquid surface, true, but it’s rather questionable if it’s the sea or a lake: there’s no wind and waves, although something invisible is pushing you in the direction that you only hope is the shore. Pushed to the extreme, and put into skilled hands, it can work fantastically in a short story, but when expanded to the size of a novel, there’s always the risk of overwhelming the readers with oddness and confusing them too much (and for too long). The skilled hand, therefore, must achieve a fine balance between denying them the pleasure of feeling comfortable and letting them believe what they are used to believing, that a + b = c.
In this novel, M. John Harrison does exactly that: he denies us solid ground more than in any of his previous novels, but at the same time, manages to keep our attention, and, among other things, demonstrates the possibility of enjoying a novel without waiting for the mystery to be fully unraveled, explained. Everything is episodic, anecdotal, full of details that seem unimportant (while the things that appear to be of importance remain obscure, even when meticulously depicted), full of protagonists’ petty insecurities and frustrations, and underneath all that a greater picture might lay, but we’re left only with its snippets – left to draw our own conclusions. We recognize the novel’s metaphors, but aren’t sure what they address. Or, better yet, there are many things they may be referring to. So maybe the trick is not to single out any of those references, maybe everything that appears to have some connection to the novel is actually connected to it. The novel’s vagueness is, then, its virtue, and although a twinpeaksesque approach like this one demands a careful and patient reader, for such a reader the reward is guaranteed.
M. John Harrison has a history of provoking us to consider the notion that in life, just like in art, there are no compasses and exact maps that would make the journey easier, provided that there is such a thing as “a journey“ at all, and the readers who don’t care to engage too much, who prefer answers over questions, should avoid this novel. For all the rest, the curious and the bold: this is your best summer isolation read....more