Review by Karen Langley
M. John Harrison is a writer who’s been pushing the boundaries of fiction for decades; from his early sci fi works, through the fantasies (or are they?) of Viriconium, past straighter fiction and hard sci fi, and up to his recent acclaimed and award winning The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, he’s an author who always produces the unexpected. Therefore the arrival of a ‘memoir’ from his pen is a major event. However, if you expect a normal autobiographical book from this strikingly individual writer, you may be a little alarmed…
As far as devotees of his writing are concerned, Harrison has a unique style and a singular worldview; and in some ways it seems as if the reading world is only just catching up with his vast body of work. He’s stated that he never intended to write a memoir, so the announcement of this book was unexpected, but very welcome. That said, as with most of Harrison’s work it’s almost impossible to classify, although thoroughly stimulating to read.
These memories aren’t Proustian. They are hardly even memories. They are more like glitch art or soft errors – vague unhelpful frissons, flashes of recognition in which the real object remains hidden. The memory is not what you remember: the memory lies further down, or away, or whatever.
Described as an anti-memoir (a description I’ve heard being bandied about lately), the book does in places draw on memories from Harrison’s past. Born in the Midlands, he shares fragmented glimpses of his younger years, snapshots of life as a child which actually is probably an accurate representation of what most of us remember from our pasts. There are longer autobiographical sections, like the pieces set in the period when Harrison was living in Barnes; these describe evocatively the area, his garden, and his aged cat.
Then there are his musings on rock climbing, obviously a vital part of his life for one period, and something which went from being all-encompassing to becoming more problematic as Harrison moved on in life. In later pages, he looks back to his parents and his background, realising how little he actually knows about his family history; and the sense is of a man who was always on the move, peripatetically searching for a place to settle (which in recent years has been Shropshire, a landscape which feeds into his latest fiction).
Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your efforts, what do you get? An artefact of the process if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye.
However, this being M. John Harrison, things are not going to be straightforward! Enter Map Boy, a kind of alter ego/younger self/projection, who turns up periodically in the narrative for conversations with Harrison and to provide reminders. There are other regular visitors to the pages, such as fellow writer Bea who offers advice; and Grannie and Peat, climbing buddies who are happy to take risks on the road. And there are sections presented as fiction which might be memoir or might not be – but are wonderfully written in that marvellous way he has with words.
Perhaps the most fascinating element, though, is that running all through the book are meditations on Harrison’s writing – his methods, his motivations and the importance it has in his life. He discusses his ‘nowtbooks’, explores lost fragments and gives glimpses into his processes. Typically, he explains the elusive, shifting forms of his narratives even whilst displaying them, which is quite exhilarating to read. The prose is mercurial, often elusive and undeniably Harrisonian. He’s an author who looks at life and events indirectly, and this is reflected in his writing – that oblique take on things is what gives his work such a unique and distinctive flavour, and makes his fictions of all kinds so memorable.
There’s a fascinating section entitled “the real, the weird and the evidently written” which explores, amongst other things, what Harrison describes thus: “The Weird is a way of writing about the real.” Certainly, the cross-pollination of various genres has contributed to the creation of fiction which straddles boundaries and is therefore much more interesting and challenging than straightforward narratives often are. I guess you could say that’s where Harrison is writing now, commenting on the world, but not head on. However, he’s also happy to provide at one point in Wish I Was Here a trenchant take-down of the modern world we’ve created and its politics, which is very refreshing.
So Wish I Was Here is not so much memoir as a book about memory, writing and trying to find out who you were and are (if we can ever truly know these things); and it’s a stunning read from start to finish. You could regard it as a collection of philosophies and beliefs, laced with fragments of memories and a thought-provoking look at the art of writing; but however you view it, the book is as individual as anything else Harrison has written.
M. John Harrison is one of those authors whose work is life-changing; I find I never look at things in the same way after reading him. And Wish I Was Here altered, for me, the way I thought about the process of writing and actually being an author, as well as giving me some insight into his life and past. This is as close to a look inside Harrison’s head as we’re going to get, and it’s an unforgettable and wonderful read!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and likes to look at life from unusual angles (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
M. John Harrison, Wish I Was Here (Serpent’s Tail, 2023). 978-1800812970. 213pp., hardback.
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