The Ghosts of Empty Moments

A Review of M. John Harrison's "You Should Come with Me Now"

The following is a review of M. John Harrison’s collection, You Should Come with Me Now. We’re also featuring a story from this collection, “Cicisbeo.”

I first encountered the work of M. John Harrison in the form of “Egnaro” when it appeared in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.  I knew immediately that I had found something special, even if I was more than a little late to the party, and ever since it has served as a kind of model for what I think is meant by the term weird fiction at its most nuanced.   “Egnaro — in the beginning at least — hides itself in the interstices, the empty moments of your life.”  You Should Come with Me Now, the author’s latest collection, continues to explore similar territory with an eclectic group of stories united by a powerful imagination finely tuned to the inexplicable quiet forces that propel lives through their existence, often branching off unawares into another lurking nearby.

The collection’s subtitle is the deceptively unspecific, “Stories of Ghosts,” and ghosts in their most elusive sense are indeed a unifying element of the collection.  They’re not always the remnants of humans or other creatures that were once living, however.  Sometimes ghosts are architectures and pathways that have been or will be abandoned, hints of ideas yet to be breathed into life but which have a preternatural ability to be articulated, strange loops whose antecedents can never be traced, rootless leftovers of a deconstructed subject-object ourobouros.  The devil is in the details, as a brief flash of an image might show up that harkens to a prior story, expanding the world of each through allusion and serving to recontextualize events in profound ways.  Harrison consistently bends his prose style in service of confounding the subject-object relationship and holding a microscope to the uncertainties that come of it.  Passive voice, second-person, deliberately ambiguous referents, all are used effectively to tell tales whose effect is not only that of unsettlement but also sympathy, not merely strange but also familiar.  The story “Psychoarchaeology,” which follows workers surveying for remains of deceased British royals in parody of historical relic-selling practices, is one of the many interesting examples that purposely undermines the idea of the subject, cause/effect, and the historicity implied by such:

It’s as if our obsession with dead Royals has in itself made them available in such numbers.  Why have we suddenly started digging them up like this?…It’s certainly not possible to learn from them.  All they mean to us is what we want them to mean.  To claim we can learn from them because they had, at base, the same emotions as us, the same satisfactions, the same fears, the same ‘needs’, is in itself a projection.  They aren’t the past in any material sense:  brought to light, they’re what they are now, not what they were then.  At best they’re a geological resource, not perhaps as valuable as coal, but more easily available…”

A Rain of Silent Objects

YSCwMN opens with “Lost and Found,” a vignette indexing items in a restaurant in a half-state of abandonment, cataloging objects that may have been left behind yet are still in use by persons unseen. A lively emptiness.  So much of Harrison’s work, particularly earlier in the 2010s with the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, has pushed the subgenre of the “Big Dumb Object” story into new territory, and the kitschy lack of obvious utility of the objects cataloged here and elsewhere hint at a history not to be uncovered but that shapes the ways the reader might uncover the selves that populate the stories. This piece and others of similar length, some a mere half-page, act as a chorus to set the tone, a kind of guidebook for a postcyberpunk hauntology through which move the stories’ human inhabitants.  Some of these vignettes feel incomplete on their own, but taken as a part of the whole collection they render more vivid the lengthier, character(ish)-driven stories.  One of the strongest, “Rockets from the Suburbs,” is a master-class in getting mileage out of each word and sentence.  It reads like a prose poem of sorts, with compact sentences describing a suburb until the author deftly shifts perspective in a way that recontextualizes not only the scene we’re reading about but also the medium itself.  His scene is set with brisk, compact phrases and directives, descriptions of noises ambient and specific, and “Against this, the tendency of things to be.”

Another vignette, “Places You Didn’t Think to Look for Yourself,” might well serve as a thematic centerpiece for the collection.  A kind of litany of missed opportunities and subjectless sentences, it kept returning to me as I was reading about the more robustly developed characters in stories like “Yummie” and “The Good Detective,” two of the strongest pieces.  “Yummie” follows the dreamlike life of a heart attack patient, Short, during his surgery and subsequent months, during which he has regular encounters with strange people who may be spirits that serve as a counterpoint to his inability to recount a cohesive narrative of his own life.  “When Short failed to answer — because this was not a past he could recognise, let alone own or identify with in any degree — he waved one hand dismissively and seemed to fade a little.”  “Yummie” is one of the more meditative pieces in the collection, and its success comes down to a quiet ambiguity that is unique to Harrison’s work and underscores many other stories in YSCwMN.

You Have to Get Away From It All

Characters living mundane lives that they’re unable to reconcile with themselves recur in most stories, but it’s a theme that does not end up feeling recycled.  “Cicisbeo,” another of the strongest works here and alluded to in “Yummie,” follows a man who gets drawn back into the life of a former romantic interest, who has since started a family while he still wishes to rekindle their passion.  Lizzie’s husband, Tim, has retreated to the attic and become steadily more withdrawn, even as a new baby arrives and the narrator is pressured into progressively more uncomfortable interventions.  As the story develops, Harrison succeeds at eliciting a sense of malaise that will show up in many other stories and which drives Tim to seek escape from the life he thought he wanted, and the author resolves this perpetual retreat in spectacular fashion.

Readers of Harrison’s blog will also find some dysfamiliar settings in Autotelia and the Ambiente Hotel, his oft-visited cousins-apparent of the Strugatskys’ Zone.  “In Autotelia” brings us what may well be a passing reference to “Egnaro” in its focus on two people seated across from one another on a train to a strange destiny/ation, a kind of alternate present divided from their England by a mysterious polluted zone that once was called Norwich. Autotelia, we learn, is populated in part by “teenagers dressed up as people who have an aching sense of how to be a teenager,” another relationship between subject and object confounded by their own verbing.  In Autotelia we find shops mostly empty, as in “Lost and Found,” save for sparse items dismissed as “kitsch” by outsiders.  In Autotelia, the narrator conducts required examinations to check for deformities and perhaps other unspecified maladies preparatory to Autotelians transitioning to “our side of things.”  But although the mysterious Autotelia is a strong presence in the background, it serves to highlight Harrison’s interest in the lives of “ordinary people” that shows up in so many of these fictions.

The most interesting exploration of Autotelia in YSCwMN is “Cave & Julia,” which concerns the relationship between a journalist and an actress whose brother was “lost” long ago at a mysterious site of significance to a culture long gone.  The brother’s disappearance at the site creates a paradox of identity that affects both of the eponymous characters, and is perhaps one of the best realizations of Harrison’s interest in the destabilization of identity.  The story’s main theme is carefully set up with a deceptively simple statement that doubles as part of Julia’s history: “They [people] knew her founding narrative — the loss of her brother and the subsequent prosecution for manslaughter.”  As she recounts seeing her brother’s apparition in the wake of his disappearance, he’s described as “just one of the fictions that lives here.”  As Cave grapples with his own inexplicable experience of ancient site, Harrison plots out a life from a telescoped point of view whose focal points now feel different from the life he was supposed to lead, and although this development stems from an encounter with something uncanny, its effects feel all too anchored to the real world.  In a sense, a new life has been constructed:

He felt his surfaces change and soften, but detected beneath them a concreted layer of debris, an identity he could date very accurately to his struggle across the cloister, a condition of anxiety which founded not just his memories of Autotelia but of himself.”

Humor shines through more strongly in YSCwMN than in previous works of Harrison’s fiction with which I’m familiar, and it is often deployed to highlight rather than diminish the quiet strangeness that unites these stories. For all the subtlety found in these inner lives and routine pedestrian routes, we also have shocking and absurd dreams of decapitations en masse that may or may not be hilarious, and Elf Lord expats from forgotten secondary fantasy worlds flipping through cable TV channels.  Most of the time, the humor works, though on occasion it features more prominently in stories or vignettes in a way that causes them to feel a little underdeveloped in comparison to the bulk of the collection.

We Live in the Thinnest of Worlds

What interests me perhaps the most about Harrison’s fiction is his ability to craft a tale of unsettlement whose effects are rooted in processes of creation, transition, and recontextualization more so than suspense or the prospect of violence as a catalyst for change.  The architecture of a staircase of cosmic dimensions jutting into the ether, uncanny constructs exerting themselves on a person’s identity from deep in the past or future, “cultural stresses” leaping beyond the boundaries of their medium to transform the observer: such story elements all put me in mind of an Egnaro conjured into a state of probable-being by a bystander hearing its qualities uttered. These imaginative devices are skillfully written as mere half-steps from the architectures we pass without comment on the street every day, rendered all the more convincing by faithfully capturing the minutiae of human experience that we so often struggle to convey to one another but which comprise our “empty moments.”

Seldom are there straightforward problems and answers posed in these stories, but the enigmas within are rich, imaginative, and realized with a degree of precision and insight that is hard to find anywhere else.  I’ll conclude by returning again to “Egnaro” for the best summation I feel I could provide of You Should Come with Me Now:  “It is part of the universe of events which will never wholly reveal itself to you: a conspiracy the barest outline of which, once visible will gall you forever.”  Each story in YSCwMN reveals another small part of the outline, leaving just enough to allow the artfully unstated to thrive within and remain with the reader.  As Lucas says in “Egnaro”: “we all love a mysterious country.”

One reply to “The Ghosts of Empty Moments

  1. Pingback: "Cicisbeo" by M. John Harrison | Weird Fiction Review