You Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.
Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.
Themes are not about a suffocating bureaucracy however, yet the atmosphere is at times just as claustrophobic and harrowing. It is contemporary life that suffocates Harrison’s characters – the disillusion of middle age, loneliness, broken relationships between broken people, falling out.
London’s kind to the confident. Otherwise, what’s there? Get on the tube in the morning and people stare straight into your face from less than one foot distance. That’s no way to live.
Make no mistake about it: most of this book is about real people, and real social interaction. Harrison chronicles human behavior, and the speculative elements are narrative devices to enhance that basic drive: they serve either as similes for an escape from regular existence, or likewise, as similes for the incomprehensibility of our Earthly lives.
Aside from a certain bleakness, there’s lots of warmth and beauty to be found. I dropped the prose poem bomb in my introduction, and it was no hyperbole. Harrison’s prose is a treat, with confident sentences describing the meaningful elements of the environment the stories are set in: Harrison is a nature poet as well as a painter of interiors, describing plants, light, weather and household items – not just to get the word count up, but in a way that says something about life on our planet, and life in 21st century England.
The evening air was hammered like gold on to the rubbish in my front garden. I had been thinking about her all day.
The joy of reading these stories is not only based on the realistic peek in other people’s lives or the prose style. It’s also the thrill of being surprised. There’s quite a lot of awe packed in these 257 pages. It’s the same awe Gene Wolfe sometimes manages to evoke, or Kafka, or Miéville – the awe of something wild, something just out of sight, turning the corner and all of a sudden seeing something utterly unexpected. It’s the juice speculative fiction fans live for, but it’s let loose here, without the restrictions of genre tropes authors like Sanderson submit themselves to. Not that this a no-breaks wild ride, this is no Perdition Street Station, not at all, the outrageous is subdued. It is neither a Rococo imaginative rollercoaster like The Book Of The New Sun. But it is free. It is without restrictions. It is human creativity. And it will creep up on you on moments you will not expect it.
Things I haven’t mentioned yet: there’s political activism here, literary critique, and critique of the superficial interactive exhibition culture. An immaturity not willing to be shackled. A witty intelligence. The longing for a simple life. Tons of variation, not one story is alike – except for a few that are connected.
‘The strangest thing,’ he says in a kind if gentle wonder, ‘is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten.’
Harrison respects his characters: they do not say or do things for the benefit of the reader. There is absolutely no exposition, and the stories get what they need, and what the stories need only: the words are words important for the characters, and it’s up to us readers. That is liberating as well, as a lot is left unsaid: all the more power to you, reader. Who cares that you don’t fully comprehend what is going on? Does one ever?
Maybe you’ve already read a big chunk of these stories elsewhere, a lot of the longer pieces have been published before as well. You might still want to consider getting You Should Come With Me Now. The 18 stories and the 24 short pieces are “organised to bring out the themes the way a novel might. Yes they are short stories, but yes the book is a thing in itself.”
After reading this, I’m even more looking forward to reading the 2 sequels to Light, and also start the Viriconium series. I also hope to find Harrison’s previous two short story collections somewhere on the second hand market.
I rarely do this explicitly here, but You Should Come With Me Now gets 5 out of 5 stars. I hope Comma Press manages to market it beyond the speculative fiction crowd, as this is literature, plain and simple, a work of art that deserves a wide audience.
In the sense that you have reduced your options according to an inner program you don’t understand but which is obvious to anyone who has known you longer than a year.
UPDATE: I came across what is probably Ursula Le Guin’s very last review, about this very book, in The Guardian. Having thought some more about the issue, I generally agree with her – and Corwex in the comments below – that the book’s biggest shortcoming is a kind of repetitiveness. That should not be a big negative for the “uncommon reader”. Le Guin’s review is here. It is very much of interest for those not interested in this collection too, as she makes a some statements about fiction in general, and the pitfall of “fiction that abandons cause and effect”.
You can get a free taste of the book in the Times Literary Supplement. They reprinted one of the longer stories, The Crisis, here.