Blog all dog-eared locations: Climbers, by M John Harrison

17 February 2014

I couldn’t put this down.

I’m a fan of Harrison’s writing, so I might be biased, but this enthralled me. Much of his work veers between Fantasy, SF, and magic realism. This is at most only a little of the latter: a hazy set of tales spread over a year, from the perspective of a man – “Mike” – moving to the north to leave a failing relationship, and finding solace on the side of rocks and in the company of climbers. Not a failing relationship, actually, so much as a dwindling one. Nothing stops or starts here: things just fade in and out.

There is a plot, for sure, told in fits and starts, but threading ever-forward. And yet the magic of the book is in the telling. In some ways, it’s very plain prose – and yet it unpacks in your head, like dense poetry. It’s told with a very narrow depth-of-field: some scenes, some people are perceived acutely; others just float by, either out of Mike’s focus or ignored, either unconsciously or not. And, every now and then, out of the mist, the text just leaps out. I underlined quite a bit; I’m not sure how much sense it’ll make out of context.

It probably helps that I read most of it on holiday in the Peak District, not far from many of the places the gang are. “We’re just here in my book,” I’d say, as we drove along, and I thought about Mike, and Normal, and Sankey, and Gaz, and Mick, falling off walls, sheltering from the rain, arseholing along in a Robin Reliant.

It’s special, for sure. I’m not a climber, but am outdoorsy enough to understand some of the perspective – and, when I lack it, to remember the vested men and women extended on Malham Cove, and imagine who Mike is talking about.

Very much recommended.

Locations: 160-162 – Robert Macfarlane has written the new introduction to this edition. It’s good:

Speaking to Rolling Stone about his novel Libra in 1988 – the year Harrison completed Climbers – Don DeLillo described fiction as an art-form capable of ‘rescuing history from its confusions . . . providing balance and rhythm . . . correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries’.

Locations: 274-275

David was a fireman, whose prematurely white hair gave him a kind but slightly overdressed look, like a professional snooker player.

Locations: 317-318

When they spoke to one another it was in a language full of ellipses, hints and abrupt changes of subject, in which the concrete things were items and prices.

Locations: 413-415

The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Locations: 416 – expressing something very elegantly that I know I’ve felt, usually on a boat.

‘It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.’

Locations: 774

March is the hinge. There is always the sense that the year might as easily slam shut on it as open.

Locations: 900-906

…jumped off with a thud and stared sulkily across at the abandoned explosives store with its fringe of rank weeds. ‘Looks like bloody Dr Who.’

Earth, 1997: everyone lives under the ground and wears identical clothes. Something appalling has been done to their sexuality and they walk round staring directly ahead of themselves. ‘Not much different to now.’ Every fifteen minutes a voice like the station announcer at Preston says something nobody can understand and they all walk off down a different corridor. Can the Doctor help them?

‘For fuck’s sake shut up,’ said Gaz, ‘and let’s go somewhere we can climb.’

Locations: 930-932

When you hear an old song again like that, one you have not thought about for years, there is a brief slippage of time, a shiver, as if something had cut down obliquely through your life and displaced each layer by its own depth along the fault line.

Locations: 951-954

…we went, as he put it, arseholing down the M6 with the radio turned up full: AC/DC, Kate Bush, Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ already a nostalgia number. How many times, coming back after a hard day like that, has there seemed to be something utterly significant in the curve of a cooling tower, or the way a field between two factories, reddened in the evening light, rises to meet the locks on a disused canal?

Locations: 1297-1300

One thick vertical bar crossed at three-quarters of its length by a thinner, shorter one, both enclosed in a parallelogram of shadow: a strange figure, the dark part the colour of earth and lichen, the bright parts green and gold. All morning the sun had been forcing it round to the north. It elongated itself to escape. Eventually it would go too far and break to pieces against the shelves of books, but not before the cat Rutherford had got down in it and wriggled with pleasure.

Locations: 1429-1432

The life that goes on in cafes is domestic but minimal. Alone in one you pour your tea, unwrap a knife from a paper serviette that says ‘Forte’ or ‘Thank you, we hope you will call again at Marie’s’; there is as much comfort as you like to create out of the rattle of crocks or the slump of the waitress’s shoulders, and no further claim on you as there would be at home.)

Locations: 1761-1766

On Sunday mornings the Railway Cafe at Grindleford is full of school teachers, up from the Midlands by Ford Fiesta to do climbs in the Hard Very Severe and low Extreme grades. They squeeze between the tables in the hot steamy air, shouting and talking and clattering their plates. The men, in their middle thirties, with longish hair and aggressive but neat beards, often teach maths or geography; some of them can play the guitar. They make thoughtful, steady climbers. Though they lack the imagination, the edge of nervous excitement, to be outstanding, they form the backbone of the sport. They occupy its middle ground. They decide its shape. If they have a fault it’s that they are too minutely concerned to use in the same way the same holds everyone else has used.

Locations: 2148

The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.

Locations: 2334-2337

All Sankey’s things – the chipped Baby Belling on the draining board; the bits of unmatched blue and fawn carpet; the one-bar fire, the transistor radio, the stereo with its handful of dog-eared albums from the early Seventies – had a used but uncooperative look. He had assembled them, and while he was still alive his personality had held them together; now they were distancing themselves from one another again like objects in a second-hand shop.

Locations: 2659-2660

‘You spend Christmas,’ I wrote, ‘surrounded by other people’s assessment of you’

Locations: 2851-2852

If you look straight down an Inter-City second-class carriage, the landscape on both sides of the train flies past in your peripheral vision like images in a split-screen film. You have only an instant in which to recognise an object before it becomes a blur.

Locations: 3286-3289

Without a word, he levered himself on to The Snivelling and climbed neatly and carefully, without slowing down or stopping, to the top of it. There, he waved his arms disconnectedly in relief. He let out a shout of triumph which made his face seem distorted and animal-like: I understood that Mick went climbing only to release this expression from himself. What it represented I had no idea. For a moment though I was awed, and almost as excited as he was.

Locations: 3322-3324

Mick’s stories about his job are mixed with sentimental memories of ‘the rescue’, preserved in – and intricated with – an even older level of material from his school days. He often seems to forget I wasn’t there when this childhood sediment was laid down. His tenses saw violently back and forth as he tries to unearth what he wants.

Locations: 3363-3364

You believe, as you make the first move, that you have already accepted the potential fall.

Locations: 3382-3383

I played ZZ Top, ‘Deguello’: my aggression seemed endless. The music fell obliquely across the rock, illuminating it like a new wavelength of light to reveal brand-new ways of climbing.

Locations: 3397-3398

Something seemed to lurch inside my knee, like a small animal trying to escape.

Locations: 3497 – I underlined this mainly because I couldn’t envisage it or make sense of it. And yet: I’m sure you do that. I’m just not nearly in as much control of my body as these men.

In a figure-four move, you try and sit on your own arm to extend your reach.

Locations: 3509-3511

Cavers, anyway, are proud of their parties, which are predicated on a greater despair than climbers can ever experience, the knowledge that you are going down into the ground the next day, where it is dark and cold and smells like a hole in the road; or on a greater joy, which is that you have come up again.

Locations: 3548-3549 – because it’s a smell I know very well.

He turned up ten minutes later, in a bruised Transit van belonging to his firm. Inside, it smelled of oil, Swarfega and old polypropylene rope.

Locations: 3594-3596 – Stox is talking about stock-car racing:

‘Ever been? One minute nothing’s happening. They’re just cruising round the pace lap. The next it’s like Apocalypse Now in a cinema full of hot dog stands. You can’t see for cinders and all you can smell is fried onions. Fucking awesome!’

Locations: 3664-3666

As if pigments could learn about what they represent, events understand themselves more accurately towards the end than the beginning, the freshly quarried boulders photographed at Millstone Edge have confirmed their outlines and no longer resemble melted lumps of sugar.

  • "Had our correspondent developed the gift of foresight? No. He really had heard these stories before. Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of “Like a Rolling Stone” in textbooks like “The Fundamentals of Marketing” (2007). As for 3M, the decades-long standing ovation for the company’s creativity can be traced all the way back to “In Search of Excellence” (1982), one of the most influential business books of all time. In fact, 3M’s accidental invention of the Post-it note is such a business-school chestnut that the ignorance of those who don’t know the tale is a joke in the 1997 movie “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”" This is a brilliant article on the literature – and culture – of talking about 'creativity'.
  • "Why doesn’t popular fiction encourage writers as entertainingly skilful as this? Because we do not value the skillset itself, only the story it mediates. We long ago separated the skillset out and donated it to literary fiction. Danny MacAskill doesn’t tell a story. He just is. Indeed, by the look of it, he just is the skillset. As a result I cry every time I watch him perform, because the performance is so much more intense than anything I’ve ever made." Great writing, by a great writer, about a great performer. Perfect.
  • "The compass knows the map, son, it knows when the map is near. Let the compass direct you to the map but whatever else you do in this stained forsaken world keep them apart. Else there won’t be sufficient salt water in the oceans to quench the soles of yr burning heart."
  • "As I understand it, B says, the cliche “writer’s block” actually describes the inability to write anything at all. If you have a problem with a plot, she says, you’re not blocked, you are in fact writing; because the maddeningly slow solution of difficult problems in the context of specific pieces of work is part of the process of writing. In B’s opinion, you aren’t blocked in the cliche sense unless you’ve written nothing for several years and can be played by Mickey Rourke." Yes, that.
  • "The OWL is an open source, open hardware, reprogrammable effects pedal designed for musicians, coders, and hackers." Ie: a DSP stompbox with an ARM Cortex in it; you reprogram it by writing C++ and uploading new patches over USB.

Unplaces

12 May 2013

Two things I’ve noticed about a lot of things I’ve been reading recently: their formats, and their topics.

I’ve been reading a lot of shorter things. I think that comes down to having a lot on, and not always being to devote the brain-cycles (even if I have the time) to large, ongoing works. So I’ve been diving into short stories – notably, George Saunders’ most recent collection – and the Kindle Single, which appears to be reviving the novella for the early 21st century.

50-100 pages is a really nice length for fiction – longer than the ultra-tight focus of a short story, but still confining enough to give it a focus that novels don’t always have. It also means you can finish something in a single hour, which is, I think, why I’m warming to these so much: I get the satisfaction of finishing a lot of fiction without committing to the emotional and time demands of a novel.

But going beyond the format, I began to see echoes in the content.

Towards the beginning of the year, I read Nicholas Royle’s First Novel. I’m a big fan of Royle’s fiction; I can never tell if I’m in a minority, or if it’s just underrated. This might be my favourite book of his yet. Perhaps the most unsettling, too. It is very aware of its status as fiction, and yet the tale of an author who teaches creative writing at a redbrick university begins to feel like it’s slipping into an autobiographical mode… until it lurches, and you begin to worry for Royle’s own sanity – which is, of course, part of the point of that perspective; he’s playing with you, and completely in control of the fantasy of the novel. The way it jars with what we know of reality is part of what makes it work.

The frequent trips to sit in parking lots on business parks reminded me a lot of Marc Augé’s non-places, and as I say that, I realise that all these books and stories are about unplaces of one kind or another. The parking trips interrupt the flow of the narrative, punctuating it with emptiness. these episodes set the increasingly unsettling tone, which the main narrative picks up and runs with in the final act, and you realise that whilst various events of the plot were red herrings and blind alleys, the tone of events up to this point has been very carefully focused on producing a singular sensation.

It’s a similar conceit to Nic Roeg’s direction of Don’t Look Now: whilst the A-plot marches forward, the bodies dredged from the Venetian canals serve primarily to set tone – Venice, beautiful Venice, becomes unsettling and unpleasant, all dark alleys and a serial murderer on the loose. The murderer is seemingly unrelated to the A-plot, and yet in the final act, Roeg brings this background action into the foreground… only to prove how unrelated it is in the closing scenes. I know Royle is an admirer of Roeg, and there’s something of Roeg in his plotting.

What’s really stuck with me, though, is the depection of familiar spaces to the point they become unfamiliar. That also emerged in Keith Ridgway’s The Spectacular, a Kindle Single about a literary author trying to construct a pulpy thriller around the Olympics to finally earn some money. The character’s obsessive research begins to take him down some strange routes, and as he begins to emulate the terrorist (if only in his imagination), the shape of the world changes; he sees it differently. By the end, when the plot takes a sharp 90º turn, the author decides he may as well roll with it; reality has shifted far enough in his head. Rod has written about this book before, and I loved it – very topical, somewhat strange, and depicting 2012 London (very familiar to me) as if it were a foreign country.

That notion of the familiar and the unfamiliar then came to a head in M John Harrison’s Autotelia works – firstly In Autotelia, featured in Arc 1.1, and then Cave and Julia, available as a Kindle Single.

Autotelia is another country, and they do things differently there. It is not just foreign; it is the most foreign; actions, events, emotions; all are different in Autotelia. A place one goes to feel different. It is abstractly distant – connected not geographically, but through some kind of transition zone; it is a place you can go to but it doesn’t appear on a map. And as such, it manages to be familiar and unfamiliar all at once; ageographic, ahistoric. Unfamiliar histories leak out of it. (It also bears a little resemblance to Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago, and it’s no surprise that The Affirmation was one of my favourite books from last year, and one that has already become dear to me).

It helps that Cave and Julia is written in Harrison’s wonderful, sparse, prose. I’ve been reading a lot of his work recently, and am growing to love his use of language, his knack for description in such little space. His blog is worth a subscription – fragmented prose leaks out of it, and the quotations and excerpts stand shoulder to shoulder with blogposts and even short fictions; it becomes hard to tell which is which, which is old, which is new, and is better for it.

And: I think, based on things written in a variety of places, there’s some degree of social overlap between these writers; Harrison and Royle seem to know one another, I think.

I mainly wanted to jot this down because, over two months, I kept going back to similar spaces in similar short fictions, similar notions touched on in different stories by different writers with very different intents, and I wanted to jot them down – because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. A series of stories all, in their own ways, about unplaces.

  • "Though I lost the original notebooks, I still have the journal. It stood in a complex relationship with, and served as a feeder for, the actual writing of Climbers, which went on concurrently elsewhere; also as a record of one of happiest and most productive times of my life. The pages were carefully numbered. The photographs, especially polaroids, have become faint and dark-looking at the same time, tinged with purples and greens not present in the lived scene." Beautiful documentation of work in progress.
  • "Truth be told, I’m a bit tired of pixel art, but work like this aspired to transcend mere pixels. And I think that’s why it still packs a punch for me today. It’s evidently not content with the paltry colour depth and resolution it’s forced to use. It’s not about celebrating its form, unlike today’s pixel art, which is all about the form and evoking aesthetics of the past without quite nailing their fundamental nature. Instead, these backgrounds are all about what they depict – little scenes, ripe with little stories and humour, and inflected with travel pornography." Great writing from Alex, and a lovely cherrypicking of the selection. I am not a huge SNK fan, systemswise, but I adore their background art – and have a particular fondness for the whole package of Garou: Mark of the Wolves. This post does a lovely job of explaining why.

Within those terms, able

14 April 2013

Harrison is often called a “writer’s writer”, a compliment that can cut both ways. How does he feel about this? In reply he describes the “practice crag” found in almost every Peak District town or village. “It may not be much higher than this room,” he says, “but every single way of getting to the top of it will have been worked out over 50 or 60 years.” At the same time, there will always be “some last great problem that nobody’s solved. The guy who will solve it may not be the best climber in Britain, but the best climber in Britain will turn up one day in the summer to watch the local guy who can do it. And I always wanted to be that local guy, as a writer. To be that technical, that familiar with a certain locality, and within those terms, able.”

From M John Harrison, a life in writing, by Richard Lea.

I’m reading a lot of Harrison at the moment – and anticipating Climbers a great deal. This struck me firmly, especially as I think about my own creative process.