How could I help but trust him to catch me again? Which was how I ended up picking up his earlier Signs of Life at the used bookstore, and more recently reading The Course of the Heart (available in the US in hardcover from Night Shade Books and in the UK as Anima, an omnibus volume that also contains Signs). Harrison, whose prose is most often described as 'precise', was probably the best author for me to turn to after hundreds of pages of Neal Stephenson. Where Stephenson's fiction is broad and surface-y, Harrison's succinct prose conceals untold depths. Like John Crowley or Virginia Woolf, he demands the reader's undivided attention--waver for a second, and you'll miss, not an important detail, but entire worlds of meaning. In some ways, reading The Course of Heart's 200+ pages was as exhausting and demanding as thousands of pages by Stephenson.
I don't want to say that Harrison let me down with either Signs or Heart, which were both of them challenging and beautifully written, but neither am I as certain anymore that he and I are right for each other. As odd is it may seem, Light turns out to be Harrison's cheerful novel, and that core of grace which seemed to redeem both the book's characters and its author may have been nothing more than a passing fancy.
Based on the novelette "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" (available here from Infinity Plus), Signs of Life is a tragedy about following your dreams. Mike and Isobel are in love and seemingly happy, but Isobel wants more. All her life she's dreamt of flight, and not even her love for Mike and their life together will stop her from seeking out any means to make that dream come true, including radical gene therapy (for those of you keeping score, Signs of Life falls on the SF end of the scale, whereas The Course of the Heart is closer to fantasy, but both books are so far removed from our stereotypical notions of what those genres mean as to make such distinctions practically meaningless). When he expanded the novelette into a novel, Harrison added two new characters into the mix--Mike's friend and business partner, the unbearable Choe (rhymes with Joey), whom Harrison describes as "what you end up as when you've ramped up the body chemicals as far as they'll go and it doesn't get you high anymore", and his sad-sack girlfriend, Christiana.
Between them, these four characters personify the different relationships we can have with our secret, burning desires. While Mike and Christiana just want to make it through the day, preferably with someone friendly they can go home to at night, Isobel and Choe reach for the stars, and are burned. Although her wish is granted, Isobel recoils from herself, only to discover that her consuming and obsessive need has destroyed all of her relationships. Choe, on the other hand, chooses to pile toxic waste on the site where, he believes, he once experienced a glimpse of divinity--better to destroy all trace of goodness in his life than to spend the rest of it yearning for something he can't have.
In his afterword to "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring", Harrison writes
"Like the novel, the story is about the confusion of dream with ambition. A true dream--the kind of dream you dream at night--is by definition something you can't have. You can't bring it across from that place of sleep. The modern dream--the aspirational dream, Isobel's dream--is something else. It defines or describes that point where greed intersects fantasy, ambition, choice, neurosis, control: intersects with, links, and binds those things. At that intersection, if you are naive, your chosen life-itinerary looks available, it looks as if it can be had. ... Every age enshrines a different character flaw as its defining virtue. This is the character flaw of our age speaking, the belief that we can "be" anything we want. Isobel Avens demonstrates an extension of it, which is to assume that what you want can be achieved without consequence, to yourself or others."To a certain point, I think Harrison is making a great deal of sense here, but the same argument that makes "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" such a powerful and disturbing piece falters when transferred to the larger canvas of the novel. Where the novelette is a portrait of a disturbed and abnormal person, the novel seems to suggest that Isobel's disfunction is the rule, not the exception. It's a philosophy that falls flat on its face, as far as I'm concerned, and the result feels like taking too close a look at a beautiful painting and watching the bowl of fruit dissolve into a few messy splotches of paint.
I had a similar reaction to The Course of the Heart (which apparently also had its genesis as a short story, "The Great God Pan"), although as a reading experience I found it more satisfying than Signs of Life. Like Signs, Heart revolves around a small group of friends--Pam, Lucas, and the unnamed narrator. Twenty years ago, while at Cambridge, these three friends performed some sort of mystical experiment, with the help (and possibly the instigation) of a mysterious, half-mad magician called Yaxley. The result of of this (constantly referenced, dimly remembered, and never fully described) rite was a momentary contact with something called The Pleroma--a gnostic term roughly analogous to heaven. It's an experience that's left the three friends shaken and altered. The narrator has seemingly come furthest in his recovery from it (perhaps not coincidentally, he's the who seems most removed from the experience), but despite being outwardly functional and even successful, he remains at a distance from life--disassociated from his job, his friends, and his family. Pam and Lucas (who marry, we are told, out of a need for comfort) take the opposite approach. Obsessed with regaining that lost sense of grandeur and meaning, they fabricate a new mythology for themselves, abut the search for a mystical realm or state of existence called The Coeur, which connects the mundane world and the heavenly Pleroma.
"The empress Gallica XII Hierodule, [Lucas] claimed, had at least three children. Of a shadowy daughter whose name may have been Phoenissa, least is known. ‘She was beautiful. She may not have have escaped the wreck. You can still hear in the Pleroma a faint fading cry of rage and sadness which may have been hers. The older of the two sons was popularly supposed to have been the son also of Theodore Lascaris, but this seems like a late slander. His name was Alexius and he died in Ragusa in 1460, where, ironically, he had a reputation as one of the secret advisers of George Kastriotis, the national hero of Albania.This mythology proves to be Pam and Lucas' undoing. It consumes them, destroys their marriage, and may or may not be the cause of a host of diseases that plague Pam and eventually kill her, after which Lucas embarks on a journey to discover the Coeur--the mystical state of his own invention.
‘It was his brother, John, who fled to Rome after the Fall, and took with him something described as a “Precious relic”.’
What this might have been, Lucas was forced to confess, was a matter of speculation. It had been variously referred to as ‘the head of Saint Anderew’, which when stuffed with chemicals would speak; a rose, perhaps the centifolia brought back to England from the Low Countries over a century later by John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the first Earl of Salisbury; ‘a magic book of which certain pages open only when a great variety of conditions are fulfilled’ (this Lucas saw as a parable of overdetermination); and ‘a mirror’.
‘One description,’ Lucas said, ‘has it all or most of these things at once. Whether it was head, mirror or cup, book or flower, it continually “extended its own boundaries through the medium of rays”. It was known as the Plan, and was thought also to contain within itself an explanation of the ontological relationship between the Coeur, the World and the Pleroma which continuously gives birth to them both. Whatever it was, it was enough to secure a pension from Pope Pius II; and John remained in Rome until his death, fathering three sons."
In her review of The Course of the Heart, Cheryl Morgan succinctly and accurately describes The Coeur as "a Narnia for adults in which, somehow, everything is better", which seems to be where Harrison is headed as well--the destructiveness of the desire to see the world as a metaphor for something else, more real than reality.
Again, this is a difficult approach to argue with. It can't be healthy to sink into Walter Mitty-ish fantasies and forget your life in the real world, but in both books one can't help but feel that Harrison has stacked the deck. In Harrison's fiction, the real world is full of unalloyed misery and tedium. Those of us lucky or strong enough not to sink into self-destructive obsession have only a dull, grey existence to look forward to, with comfort and convenience our highest possible aspiration. Maybe I'm naive, but I just can't accept that. We all have moments in which we look around and wonder if this is all there is. We all wish we could be special, have adventures, discover new worlds. But when we turn away from those wishes, most of us find ways to be happy. We take joy in our families, our friends, and (if we're lucky) our jobs. Harrison seems to feel a genuine disdain towards this quotidian existence, and yet he reviles those who try to escape it. It's actually quite cruel.
And the fact is, if forced to choose between the numb, emotionless existence of The Course of the Heart's narrator and Lucas and Pam's unhealthy obsession, I'm not sure that I wouldn't prefer the latter. Quoting someone who may or may not be Yaxley, the narrator says of Lucas, "You can't live intensely except at the cost of the self. In the end, Lucas's reluctance to give himself whole-heartedly will make him shabby and unreal. He'll end up walking the streets at night staring into lighted shop windows. He'll always save himself, and always wonder if it was worth it." After Pam falls ill, Lucas does give himself whole-heartedly. Together, they complete the mythology of The Coeur, reciting it to each other like a catechism, so obsessed with it and each other that Pam's nurses assume (correctly, in my opinion) that they're falling in love with each other. If we were to follow Harrison's philosophy, this mental and physical exertion would deserve nothing but our scorn--we would have to see it as an attempt to escape the real world. But as I've wondered before, isn't escape sometimes a worthy endeavor? Don't a dying woman and her lover deserve something to pin their hopes on, and doesn't their passion, for each other and for their invented quest, deserve our respect no matter how flimsy its foundations?
It's hard for me to accept that the author of The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life is also the author of Light, which not only holds up the possibility of forgiveness and second chances, but recognizes the importance of the yearning for adventure and the discovery of new frontiers. Somehow, the inhabitants of Harrison's imagined future, living on the edge of an unmapped region of space called the Kefahuchi Tract, get more breaks than the inhabitants of the here and now--than people, in other words, like you and me. And again, to a certain extent I can see what Harrison is saying--it does sometimes seem as if, in our culture, we've been taught to believe that we can have something worth having without paying anything for it. But Harrison's bleak version of reality strikes me as no less self-involved. I'm not happy, his characters seem to say, and I have no direction in life. Therefore, no one on the planet could possibly be happy and full of purpose, and anyone who seeks to find purpose and happiness is a pathetic, destructive dreamer, dangerously out of touch with the world.
In an interview at Infinity Plus, Harrison had this to say about a reporter who tried to classify the genre of his fiction: "The problem with description anyway is that it's so close to explanation; and explaining something is so close to explaining it away. That's what he was doing: tidying me up, explaining me away. One of the points my stories make -- by being there, as much as by their content -- is that you not only shouldn't, but in the end you can't, explain things away."
Which comes very close to describing what I tried to do when I finished The Course of the Heart. I sought out opinions about the book (see Matthew Cheney and John Holbo) because I wanted to be able to sum it up to myself, and in that summing up, to dismiss it. It's a reaction I have to many books--I like to be able to tell myself that this book is about X, that my reaction to it was Y, and that upon further reflection I've concluded Z--but more so with The Course of the Heart because I found the book so very troubling. Now I would hate to think that I've succeeded, because for all that I disagree with Harrison, or at least with his rhetoric--he strikes me as nothing so much as a philosopher who's taken a good idea to unreasonable extremes--I'd hate to think that I've been able to set his fiction aside. Harrison is worth reading, and rereading, and thinking about, for his beautiful and precise prose, his believable and infuriating characters, and mostly for his ideas, no matter how objectionable I might find them. I likened the experience of reading Light to a jump with a safety cord, but it now strikes me that the very existence of the cord would appall Harrison, that it would embody the very flaws of our era that seem to enrage him. I no longer know if I can trust Harrison to catch me when I leap into his fiction, and I suspect that it is only that sort of leap that he would consider worthwhile.