A Lifetime Drama of Escape: On M. John Harrison’s “Wish I Was Here”

By Roger LuckhurstJuly 18, 2023

A Lifetime Drama of Escape: On M. John Harrison’s “Wish I Was Here”

Wish I Was Here: An Anti-Memoir by M. John Harrison

IT’S THE QUIET ones you have to watch out for. The persistent ones. M. John Harrison has been creeping up on you for 50 years. He published his first short story in 1968, the year he was recruited to New Worlds, the house magazine of New Wave science fiction, presided over by those flashy iconoclasts, Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard. Harrison was the belligerent books editor, young, largely self-educated, and a scabrous reviewer of conventional genre fiction, the scourge of American hard SF and soft fantasy. Yet Harrison was marginal in the countercultural milieu of the New Wave. He plowed an odd, lonely furrow even then, further hollowing out the British catastrophe novel in the wake of Ballard, and then writing entropic meta-fantasies about a decadent, shapeshifting city called Viriconium, which kept changing form in every iteration. The Viriconium cycle was Harrison’s utter rejection of the consolatory, anti-modern visions of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis.

And then Harrison stopped all that, became an obsessive climber for nearly a decade in England’s Lake District, and published the novel Climbers in 1989. This was an extraordinary piece of documentary realism, with dialogue often taken down verbatim in cafés and vans and on rock faces. It turned out to be his best meditation yet on the delusory consolations of immersion in the secondary worlds of fantasy. The lead character was called Mike, just like Mike Harrison in “real” life, but as recomposed by the author-construct “M. John Harrison.” Each one was and remains a fiction of the other.

Harrison could now edge closer to the mainstream, because his novels and stories mimicked the literary novel while slicing it open from crotch to sternum and slopping out its guts to conduct obscure and upsetting divinations. The Course of the Heart (1992), about some hippie-dippie magic ritual conducted in a field at the exhausted end of the 1960s, unleashes something awful into the world: an obscene haunting or obtrusion from another dimension of which we only get glimpses. Now Harrison’s influences were not Ballard or Mervyn Peake but Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman (and perhaps also Stella Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, or William Sansom): authors of unsettling and strange stories that helped establish a distinct British tradition of “weird” fiction, hard to pin down but always sliding stealthily past one’s cognitive capacities.

Another decade, and Harrison’s strange course seemed to swing more fully into the cultural mainstream. In 2003, on an internet message board, Harrison pondered aloud: “The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?” It was a post that launched a movement, generating the context for the stratospheric careers of China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, along with dozens of others. A hundred anthologies, academic symposia, and journal special issues bloomed, and much melancholic goth philosophizing ensued. But Harrison, the awkward bugger, had already shut up shop and moved on. He wasn’t there anymore.

Instead, Harrison chucked into bizarre collision the good old-fashioned space opera, the classic science fiction of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (1972), and the Aickmanesque ghost story in his trilogy Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006), and Empty Space (2012). Things became weirder and ever more frightening, but not in ways you could really explain to anyone, especially yourself.

And then the latest, perhaps most remarkable iteration of M. John Harrison has appeared since the enfant terrible reached 70: the fragments and sputterings of his flash fictions in You Should Come With Me Now (2017); the Goldsmiths Prize–winning The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2021), a state-of-the-sour-nation novel; and the frankly preposterous prospect of M. John Harrison—of all people—being appointed as a judge in 2022 for that most mainstream of vanilla literature awards, the Booker Prize. Of course they chose a ghost story to win that year: Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Now, to cap this trajectory, we have his memoir, which typically, steadfastly, and ostentatiously refuses to be any such thing. It is another ornery refusal to conform to genre, another diamond-cut dagger of prose that lunges dangerously at you if you presume to get too close. And Harrison, at his most jagged and avant-garde, gets it published by a mainstream British press, Serpent’s Tail. He’s made it, whatever “it” is, but precisely in order to issue instructions on how to avoid it.

I sketch out this framework of Harrison’s career because you won’t get anything so pedestrian in his new book, Wish I Was Here: An Anti-Memoir. There are fragmentary evocations of his Midlands childhood in the 1950s, oblique glimpses of London in the 1960s, quite a lot about climbing, and some very funny reflections on being 77 years old (“angry even now”). But all of these are consistently undercut by an emphasis on the unreliability of memory and language, and the constantly permeable barrier between fictional and autobiographical versions of the self. He still fiercely attacks the consolations of genre fantasy (“bullshit,” it’s called here) but is wise enough to suspect memoir might be the worst genre of all.

M. John Harrison won’t unveil “Mike Harrison”—the first section is called “Losing It,” after all. “Much of life,” he warns early on, “you will never know what happened to you at all, let alone to anyone else.” Instead, we get a series of versions of the self, sometimes running in parallel with the author-construct: Map Boy, always on the edges of things; X, who is a young trainee teacher fiercely unformed and unrealized; and a female alter-ego writer called Beatrice, who has confidently strong opinions about writing (perhaps an echo of Harrison’s early book-reviewing pseudonym, Joyce Churchill).

He calls this life (this iteration of it, anyway), “a lifetime drama of escape,” of dodge, evasion, and repeated reinvention. His friends complain that every time he travels through London, he keeps exclaiming, “Hey, I think I once lived here!” “I probably did,” he continues, but all the associations have been lost. “This is not the same experience as memory, and it’s the consequence of repeatedly walking away from your own life. And not quite walking far enough, I suppose.” The acuteness of such a sentence is pristine Harrison: another turn of the screw, another dig at making sure any foundations are undermined. This memoir flickers into being because he has failed at walking far enough away. Memoir as a record of the failure of failure.

Wish I Was Here is a kind of Lacanian joke. The impish French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan—fellow traveler of the surrealists in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s—famously proposed that the conception of our ego is founded on a fundamental mistake. The infant has a sense of itself as a person only when it first sees itself in the mirror—over there, caught in the image in the mirror’s tain, not here. And from that flows all our problems, the cosmic joke of our existence: we are never identical with ourselves, because the self is from the start a misrecognition. We are all saying I wish I was here, but the very act of wishing comes from over there, in the languages and symbols of self that are always already other. The title Wish I Was Here might also be read as an imagined injunction to the reader: Wish Me into Being, Here. But it won’t work; it will always be a misrecognition.

Harrison writes this memoir not to unveil a true self or to decode, in a confident Freudian manner, the neuroses that drive the fiction. Instead, he describes very precisely why this cannot happen, why the unconscious forever evades capture. “I’m not trying to remember anything,” Harrison says. “I’m hoping that what remains forgotten is still affecting what I think.” This drives his conception of (anti-)character in fiction: “People whose puzzlement never lifts. People whose actions ‘don’t teach us anything about ourselves.’ People I can’t identify with. People who walk away from their own narrative.” And it also drives Harrison’s tendency to write long lists of bewilderingly disconnected things, only hooked together by rhetorical devices (like a list of “people who …” that runs for three full pages), lists that mimic order but only evidence the unreadable dissociations of the unconscious drives.

This undoubtedly sounds pretentious. Harrison at one point memorably describes the deer in Richmond Park as “honking & clearing their throats at one another like theorists,” which made me laugh out loud. But once, back in the 1990s, as a callow young lecturer at a conference, I learned only minutes before my panel that M. John Harrison was going to come along to my paper on The Course of The Heart. I was terrified. He glowered through it, twisting those knotty climber’s hands in a way that might well be rehearsing the ways he could snap me in half, only to then enter charmingly into an involved discussion of the impact on the novel of his reading of Lacan, along with the Gnostic texts of Valentinus. Vindication! Vindication, right? Well, not really. Harrison typically then subverted the conference by organizing an unofficial parallel track, off to the side, for the puzzled writers in attendance to do something other than the crazy stuff literary critics do. Quite right: Keep walking.

This is to say that Wish I Was Here might well be an (anti-)memoir, orchestrating oblique glimpses into the life of Map Boy and all the other alter egos, but it is also a fiercely theorized thing, routed through all kinds of subterranean networks of precision knowledge. That knowledge might stretch from technical details about car engines to climbing ropes and Russian formalism, often in the same paragraph.

One of the most striking things about the book is the way it veers into genre theory and works wonderfully as an insight into Harrison’s lifelong practice of notetaking. There are passages here on “the Weird” as a mode of writing that help crystallize that slippery (anti-)genre beautifully. He insists, paradoxically, that the Weird is “a way of writing about the real,” the place where the real and fantasy collapse in on each other. Yet he also states that “any episteme you can assemble to ‘understand’ the Weird should fail; or even better, almost succeed,” capturing the sense of a fugitive intuition that shimmers just over the horizon of most of his stories these days. He takes mild issue, I think, with his protégé China Miéville, who has insisted that the Weird is therefore always political in exposing the capitalist real as fantasy. But there is also a belligerence in Harrison’s insistence on foregrounding the constructedness of fictions, his denunciation of the suspension of disbelief, his stance that “[i]mmersion is denial.” There is undoubtedly political anger at the oblique, Brexity construct of present-day Britain in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again and in many of his recent flash fictions.

Harrison is also great on the tradition of disaster fiction, the easy lure of the postapocalyptic novel. The postwar tradition of John Wyndham or Nevil Shute, he knows, was subverted by J. G. Ballard’s disaster fictions of the 1960s, but he suggests that this vein too, where he began his writing career, has long since become exhausted. He has the odd tart thing to say about those still pursuing this strand: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is full of “easy things to think,” he says. This leads him into coded catty asides on the 1990s moment when the mainstream novel tried to “do” science (I think he means Ian McEwan or Martin Amis); he proclaims instead: “I want meaning lodged somewhere I can see it but not quite get at it.”

It’s the description of his compulsive note-taking that is most illuminating, even as Harrison typically cancels it out by calling his journals nowtbooks in the opening section of Wish I Was Here. The notebooks are nothing and everything to his writing practice. They feed his blog posts, his stories; they become his stories, worked and reworked again in different places, as if they are thick dollops of oils kept restlessly moving on the canvas, never quite finding their final figures. His writing is marked (as Ryan Elliott has noted) by constant versioning—that is, short stories get written, then rewritten, then reworked into novels, then maybe also into memoirs. These repetitions and modulations mean that boundaries are lost, and this book is only part of a series, part of this ceaseless circulation of discourse, not a way of stepping outside the fictions to deliver any final truth. In the epilogue, he confesses to writing some of these memoir fragments as “test-bedding” future fictions.

The memoir also records the hilarious moments when notes to self become utterly incomprehensible, notes from the distant other they always were. For example, “[h]ere’s a subsequent entry containing the words ‘vast old-fashioned porcelain urinals’. & added later: ‘I can’t think why I wrote this, or in what circumstances.’” Harrison discovers that “[i]t also says: Carshalton Beeches. […] Even later I add: ‘A story in which someone, discovering a note about urinals, goes to Carshalton Beeches in an attempt to find out about a life lived in absentia, perhaps by himself.’” Here is versioning in action, note piling on note, generated by the inevitability of failing ever to coincide with oneself in language.

For all this erudite reflection on a lifetime of writing, Harrison admits, in the epilogue, “[T]he best I could imagine myself doing was to write down, in a notebook, as accurately as possible, a conversation heard in a cafe in Huddersfield.” This dialogue might capture something phatic or apparently superficial, but it might also be disconcertingly disconnected, elusive, and terrifying all at once: Harrison’s later fictions in a nutshell.

This book is hard to review. It pushes a piece across the board, then takes back the move, or transforms the game into something else right in front of you: a spaceship, a mountain, a Shropshire afternoon where the light is all wrong. You think: I can write about Harrison’s late style, use Edward Said’s reflections on that idea, but then you turn to the next section, which is titled “late style.” Been there, climbed that. My notes on the book are so extensive that they might as well be the book. It’s full of writing advice that probably no one but M. John Harrison should adopt, since he’s so resolutely committed to this perverse trajectory. Certainly, there’s one piece of advice you should ignore: “[D]on’t tell anyone you read this and don’t discuss it with anyone.” Read it. You will want to press it on others like a mildly deranged Ancient Mariner haranguing those poor wedding guests as they try to go about their business.


Roger Luckhurst is the Geoffrey Tillotson Chair of Nineteenth-Century Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

LARB Contributor

Roger Luckhurst is the Geoffrey Tillotson Professor at Birkbeck College, University of London. His recent books include a cultural history of the corridor (Reaktion, 2019) and Gothic: An Illustrated History (Thames & Hudson/Princeton UP, 2021). His global history of the graveyard will appear in 2024.


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