Outside the Genre

It’s very easy to get bogged down with reading. I have a natural tendency to stick with what I know, and that leads me into ruts and blind alleys. So pushing against that tendency, I’ve made a deliberate effort to read outside my comfort zone; I’ve started to pick books at random from the library or the charity shelves in the supermarket. It’s been hit and miss, but a few stand-out discoveries have recently turned me on my head.

The best of these is The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison, a novel so strange and unexpected that I still can’t decide what to make of it. A fortnight has passed since I turned the final page, but it keeps repeating on me and I’m hardly sure how to go forward.

Without spoiling the plot, The Sunken Land follows the story of two lost and distracted people in late middle age. Shaw is a man in the doldrums, baffled by the drone of unemployment in West London. He meets Victoria, who is similarly adrift and downcast. They embark on a passive, almost desultory relationship. The tale begins when Victoria leaves Barnes and Mortlake to live in her mother’s former home in Shropshire.

Ignoring the specifics, the novel unfolds through a growing accumulation of wateriness; a confluence of imagery, motifs and liquid language which runs beautifully through parallel settings of both muddy Thames and flooded Severn. If the book itself had a texture, it would be damp and spotted with black mould. Leave it on a desk or a table if you like, but maybe put down a coaster first. In fact, the theme of moisture is played and replayed so often that it should be tiring – it’s weirdly repetitive, but the accumulate impact is strangely compelling.

Rooted in the permanence of liquidity, dry land begins to feel ethereal and suspicious. Harrison’s characters look in at everyday situations as if they were fish out of water, making strange discoveries about themselves and the people around them. They are oddly struck by social and cultural normalities which might otherwise pass without comment – the noise of drunk people in the streets; the difficulty of navigating in a car – their lives feel difficult and stodgy, lonely and puzzling. That’s reflected in the actial experience of reading The Sunken Land, which doesn’t slip easily off the page but requires persistence and focus. There are long periods of introversion and pondering; an emphasis on small details and minute transactions which are intricately rendered but tend towards an oily stagnation.

As the story unfolds, strange and terrifying things begin to happen around Shaw and Victoria, and yet it’s disconcerting to realise that they are largely unaffected by weird scenes of horror and distress. Standing beside them at these moments, it’s unnerving to realise that they do not share our discomfort – their horror is bizarrely passive, so we begin to wonder if these things are actually happening at all. Is this a literal account of an amphibious humanoid subspecies living in English waterways, or it some kind of collaborative hallucination which binds the main characters together? In a moment’s clarity, we’re told that “big or small, these events seemed all of a piece; they seemed to point to the same thing. But you couldn’t see what it might be”. That is the novel’s atmosphere rendered solid in just a few words.

As The Sunken Land slops towards a conclusion which begs a thousand more questions, there are heavy leanings on Kingsley’s The Water Babies and the painting Sea Idyll 1887 by Arnold Böcklin, which hangs on the wall above Shaw’s mother’s bed. I’m never quite sure how to read fiction which depends upon visual art – I feel like there’s almost an implicit cue to go and google the image in question, as when you read a child’s book and you’re prompted to press a button for the appropriate sound effect. But I searched for Böcklin and found the result was a perfect match for Harrison’s scene. It looks fine to a passing glance, but it’s creepy as hell beneath the surface.

Puzzled by The Sunken Land, I read some reviews of the book online. It was gratifying to discover that I was not alone in my confusion. Others had drawn wildly different conclusions from the book, but they at least had the advantage of knowing that M. John Harrison is one of the most famous living writers of British science fiction. I hadn’t made that association, and I’ve always steered clear of that genre altogether. I read the book without any preconceived expectations of genre or author, and I later wondered how I would have reacted to various situations in The Sunken Land if I had been making those associations from the start. Not only had I stumbled upon exciting new ground, but this discovery seemed to confirm my suspicion that in categorising, summarising and marketing books, we often start reading them before we’ve even reached the first page.

Harrison is a deft, confident and magically capable writer, but in reading more and deeper around his work, I found a broader endorsement by the writer Robert MacFarlane;

“Harrison is best known as one of the restless fathers of modern science fiction, but to my mind he is among the most brilliant novelists writing today, with regard to whom the question of genre is an irrelevance”

Working within pathetically narrowed horizons, it’s ironic to realise that I probably wouldn’t have read Harrison if I had known that he was a science fiction writer. And yet in reading him, I’ve reinforced my growing belief that genres are a poor way to bracket message, style or value.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s