M. John Harrison’s ‘Wish I Was Here’

By Alison Croggon
Cover of ‘Wish I Was Here’
The uncategorisable English author delivers an ‘anti-memoir’ meditating on the profound relationships between memory, imagination and fiction

M. John Harrison’s latest book, the “anti-memoir” Wish I Was Here (Serpent’s Tail), is marketed under the slogan “the best writer you’ve never heard of ”: an encomium to make the most robust of writers a little wistful. The confidence of that “you” is off-putting, since Harrison in fact has many admirers, among them authors such as Helen Macdonald, Angela Carter and Robert Macfarlane. In a very Harrisonian twist, it’s marketing that renders his actual readers invisible, in order to court the favour of those other, imagined readers who enjoy the “best” writing.

This perhaps reflects the dilemma of selling an author who, since the beginning of his writing life, has resisted anything that might make his work “marketable”, including – or especially – the idea of having a consistent “brand”. Harrison is the kind of writer who makes literary border police nervous. He has spent his life writing books that simultaneously undo and reinvent the expectations of any given genre.

He brings to every sentence he writes an almost fanatical craft, a glinting intellection and precision that lends his work the slant of surreality. His oeuvre recalls poets who render English with a hard-edged materiality that perversely lends it an ambiguity, such as Geoffrey Hill, Basil Bunting or even
Ian Hamilton Finlay, but also the hallucinogenic vividness of Arthur Rimbaud, building and destroying worlds with a single flamboyant flourish. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Harrison seems never to have published poems.

He’s principally known as a writer of speculative fiction – the polite term for science fiction and fantasy – although he’s a shapeshifter: restless, mischievous, deeply serious. In the 1970s, he was part of the New Wave defined by writers such as J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, and later, in the early 2000s, was identified with the New Weird, alongside China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer and others. In 1989 he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Climbers, a grim portrait of post-Thatcher Britain that is one of the finest examples of realist writing I know of.

His first major works, written in the 1970s, are the miasmic, dislocated fantasies of Viriconium – a series of novels and fragmentary short stories that was, Harrison said once, “the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair”. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space: A Haunting – was written in the early 2000s and piled elements of the Strugatsky brothers, detective fiction and speculative physics into a work that is simultaneously unputdownable and indescribable. I initially read this series in the wrong order, beginning with the second book, but it didn’t really matter. Plot is the least of Harrison’s concerns; rather, he plunges the reader into the depths of an always strange and estranged reality. The reason you don’t flounder and sink is his lapidary sentences. They buoy you along: fascinated, dazzled, perhaps even lost, but somehow always trustful that he’s not wasting your time.

Wish I Was Here sings alongside his other works with the same poetic accuracy, the same refusal to satisfy any desire for false resolution or certainty, the same thrilling evasiveness. Like his other works, it resists paraphrase to the point where it’s effectively indescribable. I don’t even want to quote from it, because it feels misleading.

Its fragmentary structure unwinds a sustained meditation on the profound relationships between memory, imagination and fiction, and the necessary alienation that comes with translating experience into language. It’s an autobiography of the writer, which is not the same – as he makes clear on many occasions and in many ways – as an account of the life of the person who goes by the name of M. John Harrison, although sometimes the two appear to coincide.

Despite its fiercely guarded privacies it’s curiously intimate. Sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Writing, Harrison insists, exists solely in the moment of writing and, by extension, in the moment of reading. Its gift is the joy and radical liberation of making things up. It is, Harrison says, nothing more than that and, exhilaratingly, it turns out to be nothing less.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. She is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.


Cover of ‘Wish I Was Here’

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M. John Harrison’s ‘Wish I Was Here’


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