In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, M. John Harrison argued that the segregation of literature into genres is ‘a marketing device that got out of hand’. The complaint is a familiar one among genre authors. It is also legitimate. Junot Díaz – himself a ‘literary’ author whose work is often infused with a deep respect for science fiction and fantasy – has provocatively described genre fiction as ‘the third world’ of contemporary literature. The ‘privileged’ world of literary fiction, Díaz believes, treats genre writers ‘unfairly’, rarely affording them the ‘serious reading’ they deserve. Harrison has certainly been read seriously, if not as widely as he deserves. Angela Carter, China Miéville, Olivia Laing and Robert Macfarlane are among those who have praised the disquieting clarity of his prose, as well as his restless inventiveness. In the Guardian interview, Harrison said that his fiction emerges, in part, as an act of defiance against the limitations of genre. He wants to ‘undermine’ the market-hardened borders of genre fiction; to ‘ask what [a genre is] afraid of, what it’s trying to hide – then write that.’
You Should Come With Me Now, a new collection of short stories, cements his reputation as a master of what Mark Fisher has termed the ‘weird and the eerie’. The stories – which range in length from flash-fictional paragraphs to haunting, hypnotic tales unfolding over several pages – reflect Harrison’s desire to excavate the disturbing stuff that lurks on the underbelly of genre or at the dark limits of literary fiction. There are astral-projecting aliens ‘extruded from a space that wasn’t quite the world’. There’s a vision of Britain occupied by foreign powers and rebranded as ‘Autotelia’. There are magical-seeming edgelands that throb, like the ‘zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, with buried secrets and inexplicable life. These conceits might sound a little outlandish in summary. Yet they are anchored throughout by the kinds of resolutely concrete, descriptive ‘residues’ – brand names, physical textures, particular clothing – that Barthes identified as creating ‘the reality effect’ of literature. There are references to Duck & Waffle restaurants, the M25, the Shard, ‘a Nikon 775 digital camera’. There are also descriptions of miraculous weirdness offered to the reader like gifts. In ‘Cicisbeo’, an apparently realist account of marital strife and paternal neglect evolves, in its final paragraphs, into a fantastically sad description of abandonment. The story’s grumpy, self-absorbed husband has burrowed his way into the sky, rather than face his domestic responsibilities:
I saw the tunnel he had been digging out of the loft. It hung in the air, transparent but luminous, perhaps three feet in diameter. Travelling north towards the river, it rose steeply until, at perhaps a thousand feet, it linked up with a complex of similar tunnels all across London.
That the story is set in East Dulwich, a comprehensively gentrified stretch of southeast London colonised by young, pram-pushing families, is no coincidence. You Should Come With Me Now occupies urban, suburban, and littoral territories shaped by relentless change, much of it driven by market forces, and haunted by unvoiced melancholy. (The book, it’s worth mentioning, is also very funny in places.) Harrison’s understated style means that the husband’s glassy structure, though it defies the physical laws of our world, is described in terms of units of length – hedged with those polite, chin-stroking uses of ‘perhaps’ – that bring the description down to earth, and make it feel convincing. Harrison makes the reader believe, if only for a moment, that absent fathers have spun a spider’s web of radiant neglect through London’s sky. This is a book that makes the unreal feel real, and vice versa.
Viewed in retrospect, Harrison’s writing career resembles a game of hopscotch. He has leapt with astonishing ease from genre to genre, often straddling multiple styles in order to produce hybrid works. The result is a body of work so varied that it resists easy categorisation. His early short stories, published in New Worlds magazine during the 1960s, saw him emerge as a leading figure of the British ‘New Wave’ of science fiction, his name associated with Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard. He has gone on to publish the Viriconium series, an interconnected series of fantasy works, written in high Gothic style, which emerged between 1971 and 84; acclaimed, straightforwardly realist literary novels (notably Climbers, which won the Boardman Tasker prize in 1989); and space opera (the The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the second instalment of which, Nova Swing, scooped the Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick awards in 2007).
Harrison’s most interesting work picks and chooses multiple genres, mixing them into fictional brews of dreamlike intensity that can haunt your mind for days after reading them. You Should Come With Me Now contains numerous examples. If pushed to label the writing – one senses that Harrison would prefer if you didn’t – I might call it ‘slipstream’ fiction. In 1989, the science fiction author Bruce Sterling summarised the movement thus: ‘this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.’ This is abundantly true of Harrison’s new book. Its mood of pervasive wrongness, of geographic dislocation and quivering unreality, feels apt in 2017. As Ursula Le Guin has written of New Wave fiction, there is a ‘political and literary consciousness’ at play in these pages. An undercurrent of polemic is detectable in glancing references to ‘neoliberalism’, the ‘poll tax’ – and, yes, ‘gentrification’. Might these stories be read as political allegories, useful textbooks for our alienating age?
The subtitle of the book is ‘Stories of Ghosts’. But this is knowingly different from labelling them ‘Ghost Stories’. There is a mood if not always a reality of haunting. Over the disorientating course of its fragmentary tales, the book builds to a disquieting composite portrait of crisis – of broken countries and fraying minds. In ‘Cries’, a town echoes every night with mysterious, plaintive screams, as though the streets themselves are howling. ‘In Autotelia’ is set among the kinds of transitory ‘non-places’ – hotels, train stations, airports – that Mark Augé identified as symptomatic of late modernity. Characters are trapped, often literally, in cages and compounds of various kinds. In ‘The Walls’, a prisoner spends decades chipping away at the wall of his cell, only to discover another wall, and behind that, after yet more chipping, yet more walls. He seems surprisingly upbeat about it. At the end of the story, we learn that the door to his cell is unlocked, and he can leave whenever he likes. He stays put. Keeps chipping. Perhaps the monotonous futility brings some incremental purpose to his life. Or perhaps he’s dissolving the boundaries of genre – his life’s work, one brick at a time.
‘The Crisis’ is the most straightforwardly allegorical story in the collection. It is also one of the best. Written in a second person register that lends the narrative the intimate, slightly claustrophobic feel of an interior monologue, it tells the story of a woman’s relationship, long since failed, with a drug addict called Balker. It also operates, at a deeper level, as a response to the financial crash of 2008.
In the story, London’s Square Mile has been invaded. The colonists are gelatinous, jelly-like aliens called the iGhetti – if there’s a link with Apple products, I didn’t quite grasp it – which flourish like Japanese knotweed, resembling ‘stalks of fleshy, weak rhubarb’. The iGhetti have rendered the city’s financial district uninhabitable, potentially radioactive. Whoever ventures into it emerges, months later, dazed, mutated, and filled with despair. Balker, desperate for money, takes on a job travelling into this treacherous zone. The relationship dissolves. Years later, the narrator encounters Balker at a party. In a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Cronenberg body-horror movie, he opens his coat to reveal a giant, warty growth on his chest ‘made out of damp, slick fibres’ and riddled with alien veins.
I’m probably not alone in finding fibrous tumours hard to stomach. I wrote a note in the margin: ‘utterly disgusting’. On reflection, though, the scene is anything but gratuitous. The jolt of disgust feels well judged. Reckless inequality can have horrific consequences, after all. In Harrison’s story, the atmosphere of malignant disquiet gathers to a head, building and building until, without warning, the reader is struck by a lightning-flash of distilled horror. In ‘Self-Storage’, the narrator receives an email: ‘The city is pure freedom in the neoliberal sense. It’s all freedom to exploit and no freedom from being exploited.’ Harrison’s frequently disturbing tales feel less like formal exercises in genre-twisting, or escapist diversions in the visionary mode, than perversely apt forms of realism. The world is fucked-up. So are these stories.