This is a tough nut to crack. You could say that I’m a Harrison fan – his latest short fiction collection You Should Come With Me Know was one of my favorite reads in 2017, and I liked the strange 2002 science fiction novel Light a lot. But aside the 15 pages of Doe Lea, I haven’t read anything else by him. The seminal Viriconium is on my TBR, as are the final 2 installments in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy began with Light. I also found a second hand copy of his 1971 debut The Committed Men – a new wave post-apocalyptic story set in the UK, and a copy of The Centauri Device, an “anti-space opera” that influenced Banks & Reynolds. I plan to read all of those, but at my current rate it will take me years. Anyhow, if you are a bit familiar with the titles I listed, you’ll notice Harrison has an impressive range – I know few speculative writers who have such a varied output.
It is 2020 today, and it is clear M. John Harrison has covered a lot of millage as a writer in the 50 years he’s been writing publicly. His first novel since 2012, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is published by Gollancz – which has published only science fiction and fantasy since its ownership changed in 1998. It’s maybe fitting Harrison’s new novel reconnects it to the company’s origin as a publisher of “high quality literature” too. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is not science fiction. Speculative fiction could do, maybe, but I’d hesitate to use that moniker. Aside from a label that determines a potential reader’s expectations, the question of genre might not be important, were it not that Harrison seems to try and subvert every genre he writes in. A “failed allegory” perhaps?
This novel is a portrait of a lonely man and a lonely woman, both in some kind of anxious midlife crisis, both experiencing “a triumph of disconnection”, laterally entangled in some vague, batshit conspiracy, firmly embedded in London & Shropshire landscapes, sprinkled with a few weird, wrenched elements – but rest assured: those elements never dominate the story.
Harrison – undoubtly “a high-functioning romantic” like Victoria – mentions quite a few painters, paintings or prints. Aside from capriccios by Felix Kelly, and prints from John Atkinson Grimshaw and Eric Ravilious, he explicitly names The Red Rook (1948) by Gertrude Abercrombie, Sea Idyll (1887) by Arnold Böcklin, The Colossi of Memmon, Thebes, One (1872) by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner and Solar Eclipse in Venice, 6 July 1842 by Ippolito Cafi.
I can’t find a better way to convey to you what does novel feels like, and at the same time, the novel is nothing like those tableaux.
But this is a review, so I have to tell you something about the beautiful, beautiful prose, which at times is maybe bit overdone as well. But that didn’t really bother me: it’s art’s prerogative. This novel is first and foremost about its sentences – just like Twin Peaks: The Return is about the scenes. Harrison’s prose consists of fragments of 2020 contemporary life, and an eye for plants and how the weather affects light. I also have to tell you about certain meta-parts, in which Harrison seems to opt out of knowing what the novel is all about himself. Parts which at times are maybe too involved with the novel itself, but then again, maybe necessary to reassure the reader: don’t be afraid if the ground is unstable, do trod on. And I also have to tell you something about how this novel at the same time is disjointed and one long, coherent dream of consciousness. I would not be surprised if Harrison carefully welded most of this together from scenes out of his flash fiction scrapbook. I also have to tell you this novel conveys meaning nonetheless, with enough sharp observations about our shared world and the human experience. I don’t think there was a page that didn’t intrigue me.
Wintry light slanted into the upstream reach at a surprising angle from the broken edges of the clouds, leaving the air architectural yet transparent between darkening banks.
I feel totally inadequate so say anything else about it. I made tons of notes, and there’s more than a few analytic essays to be written about this book. A feast for scholars. I could attempt one, but I don’t feel like it. I don’t even feel like looking at my notes for this review. It seems like there’s so much just below the surface that I must have missed, but it all might just be a joke too – or worse, a crude attempt at a human fish tank simulacrum. The book is serious yet deceptive and eerily light. People drink, people piss. People listen to Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy and Couperin’s Mysterious Barricades.
I’m sorry, but you’ll have to read some other reviews too, and I’ll have to reread this someday. Recommended, but etc.
Update November 7, 2020 – I’ve come across an August 2020 interview with Harrison on Big Echo, in which he talks fairly explicitly about this novel, among other things. The entire interview is worth your time if you are a Harrison fan, and the following two parts specifically might help you with your reading of The Sunken Land:
I was after a quiet surface, with constant low-level shifts of tone, register, rhythm and perspective like plays of light. Emotional undercueing. Dialogue that doesn’t say what it means, although what it means is clear enough. Loss of epistemological certainty in the central characters, to be shared fairly with the reader rather than just talked about by the text, in the usual, “Oh my god, we not only don’t understand the world suddenly, we don’t know how to get understanding of it!” as commentary on a sequence of tightly-plotted events. Quotidian contemporary settings for Brexitania, obviously — tawdry and flattened off so that uncanniness would stand out but also somehow slip away into normality. Violence kept grotesque and dreamlike, and wherever possible, petty. The nightmare of Brexitism as a low-key, real-world re-run of the prophetic nightmare of “Running Down.”
The crux here is not that the eldritch invasion happens just out of the sight of the central characters, but why it happens there: it’s because self-involvement prevents them noticing. The book tries to show the queasiness, the social yaw of that subjectivity, the kind of surreality, the horror story vibe of it. When you’re self-obsessed, when you’re privileged, everything else is always in the “background.” One day you catch sight of something happening in the corner of your eye and shrug and think, “How weird!” The next day Brexit is over and done with and your country is being run by fish people and you still aren’t getting it. That’s the spinal assumption of the book, the joke it’s based on. I kept it all in the background for the reader as well as the characters, so they could share those feelings of queasy puzzlement and explanatory collapse. There are a million ambient clues scattered around in the text, like Shaw’s proleptic dream [p24] of the amputated legs, wearing “socks in the colours of the Euronations.”
These passages made me want to reread the novel even more.
Update November 13, 2020 – Harrison won the Goldsmiths prize for this novel. The Guardian article about the win has some more tidbits on how to interpret the novel.
Harrison, who regularly reviews books for the Guardian, has described the novel as not “science fiction or folk horror or psychogeography, but it contains parodic elements of all three, and more”.
“A story of lovers so self-involved, they not only fail to make a relationship but also fail to notice a mysterious political takeover going on around them. It’s a novel about conspiracy theory in which you can’t tell what’s theory and what’s real,” he said. “It’s set in the UK now and it refers to the UK now.”