Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Wish I Was Here

The title, Wish I Was Here, and the obvious plays that it makes: Wish You Were Here, You Are Here, etc., point out to me that Wish I Was Here, as a title, works in the present tense.  This is not, however, some Fossological present-tensing meta-auto-fiction-biography. It does contain fictions, also some theory, and it is, in part, a 'how-to' manual for aspiring or would-be writers.

I am one of these. I found myself Wishing I Was Here at times during the reading of Harrison's new "Anti-Memoir" as the sub-title refers. But how 'anti-'? This books works as a 'traditional' memoir, and more (as noted above). There are scenes from childhood Christmases in Warwickshire; memories of his climbing days; and scenes and descriptions that sound like they have arrived straight out of a 'bloopers' reel of out-takes that didn't make it into one of the novels.

The funniest part of this very funny book is Map Boy.  What is Map Boy? Or, as Harrison himself puts it in the chapter title on page 14, "Who is the Map Boy"? I see Map Boy as the thematic link between several disparate aspects that are variously about aspects of navigating one's life, but in a mode of creative destruction that calls into question the map-function. Psychogeography, climbing, landscape, constant movement, constant moving of house and home, satnavs and actually consulting physical maps, getting lost, never getting found, leaving trails of books behind in old rented flats: all of these things define Map Boy.

Map Boy also gives us a whole chapter on The Weird (yes, both capitalised). Here is a bit of it that really resonated:

"The Weird is a way of writing about the real. It evolved slowly across the twentieth century and then faster than the eye could follow across the first two decades of the twenty-first, arising from constant collisions, engagements and exchanges of fluids between horror story, the ghost story, landscape writing, the hauntological and psychogeographical perspectives. All fictions are cultural, but at the moment the Weird is intensely cultural & self-aware. Do I dar write about it? Or would anything I could say only fix it in some awkward posture? Attribute to it motives it never had? ...

"The Weird is not 'Lovecraftian': it does not belong to H. P. Lovecraft. Neither is it a subset of the Gothic. It is not the same as Freud's uncanny. It does not belong to the set of 'genre-adjacent sui generis', and it is not, as some affirm, a wholly political position. In each and every case it should be a true idiolect. The Weird is not a genre in itself, but a process. It is also an emergent quality which somehow precedes every combination of events, forms, genres and skills it can be said to emerge from...." (Harrison, 2023, pages 77-78)

This applies to the present work, but also to the life described. It is one committed to the fact its weirdness, but it is also, oddly, something that might fit quite well in excerpt in the pages of a Men's Health magazine. I'm not saying it's macho (though Harrison's work has, wrongly I think, been described in such terms), but I would say there is something 'manly' about all of Harrison's writing, and that is very much on display here.

It's somewhat the same feeling I get when I read Walt Whitman, for example.  It's a distinctly male-gendered mode of being, but it encapsulates way beyond any reductionism of the male 'gaze'. It's too diverse and open to be so reduced. It's too reductionistic as well to say there's anything Mailer-esque about it, because there's something distinctly French lurking beneath the surface, with the focus on voids, and being as a kind of emptying out. 

Does he talk about science fiction and fantasy? Only in very oblique terms, almost seeming at times a bit Priest-like in his disavowal of any easy equation of certain things (himself) and genre. He says the times when he wrote best, or most productively, seemed to be the times when he least considered himself a writer. This is in keeping with the void at the heart of being.  There is no heart. There is more horror in Harrison than we give him credit for sometimes too. The dried out black husk of a heart deep down in the back part of the garden weeds.

Seasonality is a high point. As are birds, and vegetation. It is all very landscapey. Walking never gets short-shrift, and is extremely high on the list of valued things in life. There is something depressing, but there is also something hopeful, in living a life so free of illusions.  It is a stoic vision, and therefore, manly.  Don't get angry, ever, visualise the future events of your life, the better to prepare for them. Harrison is best on age, and its relationship to the delusions of youth. Harrison has always been an old soul, this is clear. His life has been one of catching up with himself, of drafting behind that future constantly running away.

Cling on, he says, you'll get a personal best. But then, too, he hits the wall, like the rest of us. His writing seems to languish for decades, but still somehow to come out the other side.  Reading this book had me re-visiting some of my own notebooks, one specifically that I'd considered throwing out.  But now I won't.  

Harrison, M. John. 2023. Wish I Was Here. London: Serpent's Tail.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Reading my own library (Ghost Story, by Peter Straub)

 In this series, Reading My Own Library, I attempt to read the books I already own. By "read" I mean, "finish", but also "attend to closely". A lot of the books I'm reading now are recent additions to my library, so part of the mission is also to go into the stacks a bit (a lot) and carve away at any stashes that might exist in the farther reaches of my catacombs.  By "catacombs" I mean, the books in my garage, in my office, in the back shelves (double stacked) of the lower reaches of shelves behind filing cabinets, in the tomes I've been hoarding for years. 

I was asking myself yesterday, "why did I buy all those books so long ago (over a decade ago), by Salman Rushdie?" I've never come even close to finishing a book by Rushdie.  The ethos of my current mission to read my own library would stipulate that I at some point finish a Rushdie book. I have several from which to choose after all!  With that said, it may take some time for me to actually do the Rushdie. This is a life-long project.

I recently finished Straub's Ghost Story. It's not a straightforward read, but it's also not difficult. I can see the popular appeal, but it's more of a weird story than a ghost story. The influence of Machen is profound, I think, and I'm glad I'd started making my way through the Oxford World's Classics edition of Machen's stories before I came to this Straub title. The baddies are unknowable monsters from another dimension. The monsters take on human form, but they are not supernatural beings. They are more like weird creatures that at times are seen as masses of white, writhing, worms, or as forest animals.  The worm bit has that tentacular edge that is truly of the weird.

But Ghost Story was published in the 1970s, making it way ahead of its time, at least in terms of this current resurgence of the weird, aka The New Weird.  As I got into this novel I realised how much more interesting a writer Straub is than, say, King. Both are, from what I understand, very popular novelists, and I'm sure (though not that sure) that some of Straub's other output must be a bit more pulpy than this. I am after all starting with Straub's (from what I know) most well-received work, critically speaking.

The form of the text is itself weird, weaving together different timelines, spaces, and dream-image sequences. These are mixed with such artfulness that it becomes impossible to know which one we're in.  This puts the novel well beyond anything like what Jackson was doing in The Haunting of Hill House, for example, which is just a straightforward haunted house novel (albeit a very very good one).

All I can say is, I'm proud to have tackled this fat novel without putting it down for any significant length of time.  Unlike the other book I'm in now, which after a hiatus of years, I've picked back up again at page 539, namely, He Knew He Was Right by Trollope. It's so easy to read though, so writerly and flowing, even as much or more than Dickens, that I'll have no problem finishing. Already a couple hundred more pages have flown past.  With HKHWR soon to be done, I feel like I'll be starting to do justice to 'reading my own library' at last!  

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Book Eaters (now back to Jane Eyre)

Did I mention I'm reading my own library? The latest book finished was The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean.

Immediately upon finishing this book I started reading Jane Eyre for some reason. Well, reason one: it's in my library so I must read it, and two: I hadn't quite finished it, and felt I needed to do Brontë's work justice.  Jane Eyre is a great read, by the way, and I speculated that maybe one reasom why Dean's own work reads so well is that she seems to be quite conversant with the emotions and inter-personal complexities of Victorian literature.  

I'm sure other authors are too, but aren't as good as Dean. One measure of how good a writer she is that the novum, if a work of fantasy can be said to have one, shouldn't really work, in theory.  But on paper it does! I was very sceptical at first. 

What it is, is this: there are people who are born vampires.  So far, so clichéd. However, these are what are called 'mind-eaters', meaning that when the mind-eater sucks the blood of someone, they also ingest all their memories and the vampire temporarily takes on the personality of the mind they've eaten.  These vampire mind-eaters can be converted to book eaters, another whole sub-population of vampire, by taking a special drug that is only manufactured by one vampire-family.

The plotting is spectacular, and the action is enveloping. The emotional connections between characters are drawn in a way that I don't think a male author could really pull off, and this is what I mean the the Brontë-ness of this book. 

I had no problem at all finishing The Book Eaters, and I can recommend it very highly.  Now, back to Jane Eyre!

Friday, December 2, 2022


 In the spirit of reading my own library (as opposed to just acquiring books I don't actually read, or can't possibly get around to reading because it takes too long), I'm writing reviews of the books I complete. The latest is Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.

This is the best book by Nabokov I have ever read.  There was only one point in the book where I read a sentence I couldn't parse (didn't understand the gist or the sense of it).  Usually I get the gist of Nabokov, with his word piles of adjectives and verbs and colours and senses and metaphors, big bulky bouquets of observation and perception.

For Pnin, the clarity of the bouquets is especially good, you can make out the shapes of his observations clearly.  The main character is really clearly delineated, an eccentric Russian-speaking professor who seems to have landed in New England from another planet. One moment he's hilariously eccentric and likeable, but then at other times bewildering and alienating.  

Pnin is a tragedy, an entirely avoidable ending brought upon himself by no one else. The university settings are realistic, the observations of campus life ring true, and we cringe for Pnin when his otherness becomes and tangible as an ideology or bad-breath. 

I understand this novel is formally innovative. The transitions between Pnin himself, his descendant Viktor, and the former tutee of Pnin who could've saved him, were she not rejected by the protagonist himself after he's fired from his job in which he's been underperforming for almost a decade, are wonderful.

It is these spatio-temporal transitions that are I think the formally interesting part of Pnin.  I did think of Nabokov's other novels while reading this: of Lolita, which I remember greatly enjoying, and which got me a bit hooked on Nabokov, in a way that might have mimicked a lot of other undergrads at the time.

Then Ada, which I only got through part of.  I've had Nabokov books kicking around my flat for a lot of my life.  I had a used copy of Speak, Memory for a time; Ada's and that one are gone though.  I feel lucky to have Nabokov back in my life.  Which one should I read next?

Reading my own library

My new year's resolution is to read my own library. A sub-question to the main question (can I read my own library?) is whether I can do so without acquiring any new books while I'm doing it.  Like most New Year's Resolutions this one probably won't last past February.  But at least that means two months of success, if I make it.

What started this research impulse was a recent shelfie in which I stacked up a bunch of books I really want to read, and realised that if I acquire new books while attempting to read the shelfie stack, then that attempted reading will most likely fail.

I'm going to try (as Yoda's "there is no try" echoes around inside my head) to write a review of these books as I finish them. 

I must clarify one thing: by "not buy any new books" I mean new books. Used books are still on the table because one of my favourite ways of socialising here in the UK is to visit my favourite charity shop bookstores and chat with the staff. Sam Beare's in Egham is a favourite; as is Bas Books in Bracknell. 

The last book I finished (not picture in the shelfie) was Pnin. I'm a few pages from finishing Ghost Story by Peter Straub. And I'm also pretty close to the end of Sunyi Dean's The Book Eaters. These are great places to start in the push to 'read my own library.'

In a couple of days then, I'll most likely start either the Priest or the McAuley.  I'll send out a twitter poll to decide which one.

Thursday, March 24, 2022


The This

I've already posted a review on twitter, of this book published by Gollancz, written by Adam Roberts, called The This, which refers to a social media site in which a brain implant (installed on the roof of the mouth) is needed in order to join. You can then 'tweet' your thoughts directly onto the platform by just thinking them. My review was written in the spirit of the book in the sense that I just poured it out of my head directly into my iPhone keyboard without really editing. It ended up being a thread of about six or so tweets, and it was re-tweeted by the author.

Having now finished the book there's nothing I would take back or majorly revise from what I said before, but a few things did happen in the final hundred pages or so, one of which is that the paradox of extraterrestrial intelligence was broached in the narrative. A contact about 10 light years away communicated with one of the 'individuals' established through the social medias on Earth, of which there were only three. These 'individuals' are in fact amalgamations of the memberships of people assimilated to the sites, so that they are now corporate structures that subsume any of those people into the collective will.

This is the kind of 'follow through' swing of the novum of this book, which is that there is a dialectic between part/whole, that Hegel wrote about, and that here is enacted in a way consonant with Hegelianism. What Roberts is saying is that if we followed through in practice with Hegel's philosophy, AND utilising the tools of social media to do so, this is what a possible end result of that process might look like. And also, this is why intelligences on other planets haven't contacted us until now. Because civilisation is essentially Hegelian, and history ends, except paradoxically once it does, then that is the prompt for those sufficiently evolved 'individuals' to contact us (and presumably others).

I would revise only slightly my judgement that this novum is a bit 'faffy'. It is only because Hegel is more faffy than Kant (only by a hair, mind you), and so two novels utilising such philosophical novums to structure their narratives and socially implicated drives, if done well, will reflect to some degree the fuzziness (another way of saying faffiness) of those philosophies. With Kant you had his twelve categories, and Roberts prequel to this novel had twelve chapters to mirror that structure. It was called The Thing Itself, and it worked quite well, in part because Roberts stuck to the spirit of Kant for clarity and took us through a kind of tribunal from the perspective of artificial intelligence, and the ethics thereof in light of Kantianism.  

In this sequel, the novum is dialectics itself, and spirit, and the part/whole idea, in which the material flows from Spirit, which forms the essential core of being. Contradictions are overcome, dialectically, and with material implications but all of this eventuates in a universe of pure spirit, the absolute, or God. The religious aspect of this book resonates really well with his previous one, Purgatory Mount, and that previous book also looks in depth at war. War is a paradox and is therefore treatable dialectically (see also Cormier's book War as Paradox published by McGill-Queen's University Press), as intricately bound up in ideas of peace. One might say the first rule of war is 'DON'T', but this rule isn't followed nearly as often as one would like (because in that case there would be no war). Being a darling of the right doesn't necessarily mean Hegel was a war-monger (I have no idea if he was or not); Hegel is equally a seeming darling of the left: Marx famously used him for his own ends; the surrealists seemed to be enamoured.

Others highlights of the book: the Bardo sections were really readable incantatory and humourous meditations on all the different ways we can die. There is a nice section that includes a whole sub-strata of footnotes that are just tweets, giving you a real-time perspective on the quality and makeup of what the flow of twitter looks like (mostly garbage really, and links to advertisements). Rich is a very sympathetic character, and so is Ally, and both are caught up in scales of maneuvering well beyond their ken. The punultimate chapter uses Orwellian doublespeak in a really sophisticated way that adds some spice to the closing chapters. Overall this book really stacks up to the last five or six books Roberts has published. This reminds me that the speech capabilities in Bete were enabled by a similar kind of (roof of the mouth installed) technology to this one, and these kinds of continuities and echoes are part of the pleasure of reading this body of work.

The Real-Town Murders; and By the Pricking of Her Thumb were both great books that I'll be reading again soon; ditto for Purgatory Mount and Bete; and then we have these two excellent ones on philosophers. It's all a great part of a lineup of speculative fiction that now in the beginning of 2022 is really starting to shape up nicely.  

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Startup Wife


What is 'dude-bro'? It is a damaging social construct of maleness that, in moments of unreflective white male privilege, I sometimes uncritically accept, which is to say, I question whether it exists at all.  I have similar experience when watching, for example, "The Office" or "The Mindy Project", two tv shows I actually really like.  But I have also had to stop watching those tv shows when they started to make me really uncomfortable. I'm not sure if the creators of these shows are intentional in how they stereotype the 'dude-bro', the guy that is super-cool and if you have a problem with him it's you, not him, because he's so cool and laid-back, how could you not like him.  But then, for example, in The Mindy Project, a bunch of the characters (all dude-bros) will start hooting because they all went to Dartmouth, and they refer to themselves and 'D-bags', which is short for douchebags. So, you see, they are taking the piss, and it is aimed at themselves.  But this is a bit of superficial (and therefore gaslighting) reflexivity.  It only serves to strengthen the dude-bro into a position of unassailable hegemony.

The wife in question in this novel is married a real sensitive guy who is not in it for the money.  He ends up, of course, with a Zuckerberg-level of power, influence, and, of course, money, that he doesn't want, but takes anyway.  This uber-guru, the husband of our main protagonist, is an expert in world religions, is self-taught, and is hyper-technical to boot.  He leverages a team together to create the next big tech startup, one that allows users to craft bespoke rituals and religious ceremonies by piecing together the bits and pieces of various spiritual traditions into, for example, burial rites for their dog. 

This novel is really not about the site, which is a bit unlikely. It is about the dude-broishness and how it is a hegemonic feature of the tech world.  It is about what it is like to be a woman in such a world, full of sensitive new age guys who also happen to be hyper-capable capitalists.  Being the dude-bro means you get to over-ride, you get to decide, and you do it by always being the coolest guy in the room, the one who makes convincing the rest of us to do your idea look so easy. The dude-bro, however, in his hubris, overreaches, and the tragedy lies therein. People, in this book, die because of the social media site that the cool guy made. It's next-level messed up where the users take this site, which eventually, like the marriage, needs to be shut down.  So, the startup wife is just that: the experimental trial that you can mess up before you move onto the 'forever' wife/site, consequences be damned.  For the dude-bro, it's all in a day's work.