I can’t remember where or how I discovered M. John Harrison. I suspect I read an interview with an author that mentioned him, as Harrison is the literary equivalent of that band you’ve never heard of that all your favorite bands cite as an influence. He is often considered the father of the New Weird, although largely in retrospect, and his stories break down the boundaries of literature and genre, treating science fiction and fantasy tropes as a tools to express ideas and tell stories that both respect and abuse the genres.
For Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Harrison’s early novel, Climbers, a mainstream novel about a man named Mike who leaves London after a divorce and takes up rock climbing.
There are strong autobiographical elements (the M stand for Mike and Harrison was an avid climber), and its depiction of the climbing culture is as engrossing as it is authentic:
I had already seen that, to climbers, climbing was less a sport than an obsession. It was a metaphor by which they hoped to demonstrate something to themselves. And if this something was only the scale of their own emotional or social isolation, they needed–I believed then–nothing else…. Besides, I had done a fifty-foot classic abseil down a piece of blue polypropylene rope, in shorts and a running shirt: if I needed reminding of that the burns were still there on my neck and thigh. How could you remain the same when you had stepped off the top backwards in that way, straight out into the air and into whatever was going to happen.
However, the book resists a traditional narrative. There is no arc, no real resolution. A specific climbing route is referred to by climbers as a “problem” and Harrison structures the book to match. The narrative moves around in time, fumbling forward, backtracking, moving up, back, sideways, wrestling with the problem of Mike’s life.
Looming over the novel–as it looms over every climb–is the specter of the fall, expressed in the form of two falls whose consequences shape Mike in ways he never fully expresses or understands. Or to use Harrison’s own words from his essay on “What it Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium”:
No character ever “survives” Viriconium: the best they can hope for after they have been sucked in is to be spat out whole (if changed). Recognise this procedure? It’s called life.
All this is told with Harrison’s near-magical gift for language. Those interested in his technique should check out Erik Germani’s The Killing Bottle: A Technical Study of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium which provides detailed, insightful analysis of language in the Viriconium novels. I can only stand in silent awe as Harrison creates landscapes that carry as much emotional as visual value…
The sun had always gone in by the time we got where we were going. The rock was bitter. Down in Staffordshire knuckles of it break out of the tops of the ridges in the mist like the rocks in a Hammer film. The wind sweeps up from the Potteries over isolated farms where they are committing incest or patricide or staring into an empty cup listening to the abandoned machinery and banging gates outside.
conveys the passage of time…
The water heater darkens the wallpaper above the sink–this can be said to be wear and tear but not precisely use. A milk float drifts past each morning–this can be said to be motion but it isn’t change. The hall and the stairs begin to smell of disinfectant–but this isn’t really a record of occupation, only an enigma.
deftly delineates yet another strange and yet compellingly human character…
Normal was wary of both vagrants and stray dogs, especially if they were at all self–possessed. He overemphasised their fierceness and undependability, their size and dirtiness. At the same time he envied it. He was less afraid of them, I thought at the time, than of his own tendency to stray.
or makes fraught even the simplest actions…
He paused to stare emptily ahead; reached inside the car suddenly and switched on the radio, which then made sobbing complaining noises like someone in the middle of a petty but damaging confession.
Climbers is, on the micro level of the phrase, sentence, and paragraph, a joy to read.