Saturday, September 17, 2005

Is There Someone at the End of This Rope? A Long Day's Struggle With M. John Harrison

Like many genre readers, I first heard M. John Harrison's name when his most recent novel, Light, was enthusiastically (and justifiably) lauded by SF and mainstream critics alike. An intoxicating blend of space opera and cyberpunk, Light demanded the reader's complete trust. What possible connection, after all, could there be between 21st century scientist-by-day, serial-killer-by-night, Michael Kearney, 25th century layabout and former hotshot pilot Ed Chianese, and Seria Mau Genlicher, a former human jacked in as the pilot of a renegade battleship turned privateer? Instead of answering questions, Harrison compounded them. Instead of explaining his characters' actions, he kept them opaque (not to mention thoroughly unlikable). The narrative, such as it was, twisted and turned, forming no coherent shape. And yet, when I turned Light's final page, I was completely satisfied. The book worked, and shockingly enough, it turned out that amidst its myriad acts of casual cruelty, it concealed a core or pure grace and forgiveness. Light was a dizzying bungie jump--both thrilling and sickening--but Harrsion was holding tightly to the cord that kept me from splattering on the ground.

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.

‘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."
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.

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.


Colin said...

That's terrific, Abigail. One of the best and clearest assessments of Harrison I've read, and I've read a lot, or what feels like a lot. The only thing I can add is, you do need to take his fiction in chronological order. Of course he buggers it up for you by rewriting old stuff and publishing different versions in different editions, but the autobiographical element of it all is important to him: more now than ever, I think. And the Mike who wrote Light is a much happier, more positive man than the one who wrote Signs of Life.

Maybe, in other words, he's heading more in your direction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's terrific, Abigail. One of the best and clearest assessments of Harrison I've read

Thank you, Colin - I'm glad you enjoyed it.

The only thing I can add is, you do need to take his fiction in chronological order.

I like that idea, and the thought that Harrison's outlook on life has improved. Thus far, my reading of his work has been moving backwards in time - started with Light, moved on to Signs of Life and The Course of the Heart, and most recently I've read Viriconium (in the new, and absolutely gorgeous, omnibus edition), which I didn't quite love. There are clearly hints of where Harrison was headed, but neither the prose nor the ideas are as clear as they would come to be.

Of course, reading Harrison in chronological order is made particularly difficult by the fact that he hasn't published anything new since Light - terribly inconsiderate :-)

Eldritch00 said...

This is a terribly good assessment of Harrison. I haven't read much by him myself aside from the Viriconium cycle and some shorts (including "The Great God Pan," which is one of my favorite stories of all time), but I've loved everything he's written. The craftsmanship of his prose is something we both agree on is one of his strengths, but somehow, I've always found my appreciation of him a bit suspect, since I somewhat share his views of the world. In that light (pun unintended...and that's the one I'm dying to find a copy of and read), I think it's nice to see a view different from mine.

Mike (M John) Harrison said...

I would be disheartened if people thought that The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life were simply autobiographical, or the result of some bad attitude of the author--some sad condition explicable by autobiographical fact and now on its way to being corrected by his having a nicer life. That would seem like a reduction of several years' hard work.

Rather, both are (in addition to everything else they try to be) political, philosophical and--if you like--spiritual allegories. Pam Stuyvesant and Isobel Avens stand for the "flattered self" under what we have learned to call neoliberalism; a state for which commercialised fiction prepares us by teaching us to assume without question that we are the centre of a wonderful, meaningful, edifying, responsive story. In challenging that view I'm not saying anything different to cultural commentators like Zygmunt Bauman or Thomas de Zengotita, or novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. In using the idea of contingency and the unstructuredness of actual experience, I'm not pointing out anything the existentialists and absurdists didn't point out sixty years ago. None of this--as a thought-out, intellectualised attitude--should be new or different or offensive ground for anyone who reads fiction in 2006.

Neither do I believe I'm saying it in a particularly grim or grungy voice. People live in different ways, some more chaotic or operatic or sordid than others. As a result of not allowing for this, I suspect, Abigail's original review misses the humour in Signs of Life. (And indeed, I suspect, in Light, which is rather more Vonnegutian, especially at the redemptive end, than she has allowed herself to realise.) Contemporary fiction is increasingly the fiction of personality disorder, and finds its humour as well as its metaphors in the dysfunctional. Sf readers are a little vulnerable to anything nasty, tending to take it at face value, perhaps, because it stirs anxieties from which they are, rightly or wrongly, seeking escape. As a result they don't get the jokes.

Whilst Colin is correct that "real" experiential material has been modified for both these stories, it is material which has been massively managed and spun. I can't overstate that. It's such an oversimplification to equate this type of fiction with undiluted autobiography; a convenient evasion of the books' ideological challenge to put that much explicatory weight on the author's life; and slightly patronising to forgive me for it in public while I'm still alive... :-) To be honest I'd rather you just hate what I do because you disagree with its ideological position.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm unconscionably late in responding to your comment, Mike, for which I have no excuse - I simply kept putting it off until I discovered, to my horror, that I had done so for longer than a month.

First of all, you're obviously right to say that it is a gross oversimplification to deduce a change in your personality from a change in your writing (although, without presuming to speak for him, I'm not sure that it's entirely accurate to say that Colin intended to characterize the change in your fiction as the result of a simple attitude adjustment - a person's philosophy of life can change and evolve in a process that is as much cerebral as it is emotional).

As I said in my original review, I don't actually disagree with the philosophy expressed in Signs of Life or The Course of the Heart, and which you reiterated in your comment. I do feel that it is overstated, and that it fails to take into account the ways in which self-delusion can be a positive influence in our lives (both of which, I recognize, could very easily have been rhetorical tools as opposed to integral parts of your argument). That said, the fact is that something does change when one comes to Light. The characters in that book do experience the "You're a wizard, Harry!" moment - they run from it as far as their little legs will carry them, but there's no denying that within the book's universe, there exists a god-like creature who observes the characters over the course of their lives, essentially turning them into the protagonists of a story. At the end of the novel, Ed Chianese is carried off by a powerful being to have great adventures and make wonderful discoveries.

So I guess my question is, what changed? Without resorting to autobiographical explanations which are, admittedly, a chump's game, something must have spurred this alteration in your books' philosophy. I'm curious as to what that was (and a perfectly acceptable answer at this point would be that neither Light nor the Anima novels completely express your personal philosophy, and that you chose to explore a different aspect of it with the later novel).

Mike Harrison said...

Hi Abigail. Don’t aplogise. I should thank you for taking the time to write in the first place. Whether we agree or not, yours is one of the best- articulated views of books like Sol and CotH on the web.

You say, “I don't actually disagree with the philosophy expressed in Signs of Life or The Course of the Heart, and which you reiterated in your comment. I do feel that it is overstated, and that it fails to take into account the ways in which self-delusion can be a positive influence in our lives (both of which, I recognize, could very easily have been rhetorical tools as opposed to integral parts of your argument)”. They certainly were. At some level every book of mine is a polemic. I think if you want change, you pursue strong rhetoric. As a result--because you have allowed them nowhere to go but to face their own complicity in acts like Choe Ashton’s “dumping” on the environment--you risk alienating that part of the audience which is determined to remain in denial. For me, escapism starts upstream of any fiction; escapist sf and fantasy occur a long way downstream of our “real” acts of escape and evasion, which occur daily and are those of neoliberalism.

On Light:

I always knew that to write Light would be to skate on thin ice. If, given my history with sf, I reveal something that might be regarded as “optimism”, will that be received--nay, deliriously welcomed--as the book’s sole point ? This is the problem of the “reasonable argument”: if I allow that some escapist acts might be constructive, pretty soon everyone will have received that limited statement as a broad admission, and be presenting it as central to their argument for a life of escapism. Same goes for optimism: allow a little in, and suddenly I’m being described as sf’s Paul on the road to Tarsus. Or would that be the Prodigal Son ? Biblical stuff is vague to me.

Actually, the end of Light isn’t as optimistic as it’s sometimes presented; it’s about energy and curiosity--energy & curiosity described as hope, or better still, expectation--not about a pretty or safe or convenient outcome. It’s about the curiosity which human beings have in common with mustelids--and ok, it’s also about how we receive that instinct as an elation about the world, and what fun that is, and how the author loves it as much as anyone--but it isn’t about how things will neccessarily get better for anyone because of what Ed has done. Cheryl Morgan won’t mind if I quote from her interview at Strange Horizons--

One of the problems of desire is choice. At the point of choice, there is this sense of falling forward into all possible futures at once; but in the moment of doing that you find that you have chosen one of them... Fiction can produce a clever little lie about that. You can end a book at the point where everything shifts forward into the act of choice, but that act of choice hasn't actually been completed, and that's precisely what Ed Chianese represents in Light. Ed is this act of choice we don't see the end of. As a result we can still feel optimistic about it. We still feel that we can have everything on offer... For about twenty minutes after reading the last sentence you are left in this warm space where you feel that anything is possible. After that -- or even before -- I would hope that you take the tour of the ironic complexities involved in Ed's optimistic act. All the things it might be, the one thing it is.

In interpreting Light, you might also want to reinscribe The Sirens of Titan as its precursor, rather than (or at least in addition to) Edward Thomas’s “The Hound of God”. I think the word “absurdism” might be helpful here, too. Light doesn’t let up on my critique of escapism or neoliberalism (see New Venusport, Planet of Choice). The idea that the universe is endlessly exploitable is not neccessarily being presented as a good one; the “boys from Earth” aren’t actually doing all that well. Or do we like the world they’ve made for themselves ? (Answers on a postcard, as they used to say.)

While I was writing Light I also wrote the shorts “Entertaining Angels Unawares” and “Cicisbeo”, neither of which is massively optimistic or pro-escapist. (Although Lindsay Duguid feels that, by introducing the fantastic into their rather appalling troika, I let the characters of “Cicisbeo” off the hook. This distinguishes very clearly the mainstream from the sf take.)

I'm happy to accept the invitation in your last paragraph, and agree that neither SoL nor Light fully represent my view of the world. Nova Swing continues the dialectic. I'm not alone in looking forward to your views on that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thank you for that comment, Mike, and for the insight into the thought processes that led to The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, and Light. You're right, of course, that the ending of Light is as ambiguous as it is heartwarming (the Cheryl Morgan quote reminds me of a line from Alasdair Gray's Lanark, about how any story can end happily so long as you stop telling it at a happy point) - although I'm not certain how many of the novel's readers took its ending as an indication that life for the community as a whole was going to get better. I certainly read it as an essentially selfish act on Ed's part - albeit one that didn't hurt anyone else - a gratification of his own desires without any regard for humanity as a whole.

But here we're coming up on the point where the fact that you know how things work out for Ed, whereas I still think of him as being caught in that locus of unrealized potential (your tantalizing hints to the contrary notwithstanding) is likely to make for an uneven discussion. At the very least, I run the risk of being spoiled for Nova Swing - which I will be writing about, by the way. Niall Harrison has asked me to review it for Strange Horizons.

Mike Harrison said...

Given some of the content of our discussion above, I couldn't resist noting this, at--

--or adding that when an economist thinks an M John Harrison novel is "understated", the world is further in trouble than I thought...

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