I read a section of M. John Harrison’s memoir today about the Weird, which I find useful as a way of thinking about his work: what I enjoy in it and what I’ve struggled with. Here’s the concluding section:
“In the end, the Weird is just some hard work to make a surface which leads down to lots of interpretable levels in the text. No image or event is there by accident and they always point to a way of reading the whole story. It takes a long time to web that up – and also to avoid a lot of Hollywood formalist locks and keys which can be used to gain entrance to a rational solution. I don’t want to write puzzle stories that can be decoded to the correct answer. The zen of the Weird is to express it not as direct content but as a potential inside other content.”
“No image or event is there by accident and they always point to a way of reading the whole story” is what so fascinates me about Harrison. There’s this sense that you can’t over-read him; at the same time, that he won’t respond to paranoia. An example of how I try to apply this to my own prose, in the chapter I’m writing now:
“She pulled into a space slowly, letting the adults presently bustling blankets and picnic baskets and four small children out of the adjacent park get away clear.”
This is a passable description of how someone might arrive in a garden (though my supervisor has warned me about ending long sentences with the verb). But the method of thinking I get from M. John Harrison wants to know what part of the web this is. This character has to wait for a family to get out of the way before she can occupy the place she wants to, and she’s willing to do so, calmly. Doesn’t that mean something? If it doesn’t, couldn’t it be made to? Either I want the rest of the chapter to react somehow to her calm waiting, or I want to switch it around so she’s revving the engine, or almost collides with a toddler, or something. By the time I finish a chapter, that’s the level on which I want it to be talking to itself. Anna Scaife in our class writes like this, which is why I like her work so much.
[Note: haven’t done this yet. Don’t know if I shall.]
My book yields to some quite obvious partial decodings, if you know about my life. They phase in and out: the characters who are depressed, the struggle with volition, the representing of subcultures as arbitrary things that trap one inside them, the sense that the possible is larger than the actual and engaged in a war about it, something about intensity of relationships and redefining intense relationships, parenthood (I live in fear of my parents believing I’m writing about them, and I also live in fear of discovering I’ve actually done so), becoming an adult, considering gender. These are all anxieties I have! What I want to be able to do is play lightly under them all. I can’t find the M. John Harrison quote where he talks about there being a writer somewhere in your brainstem who understands a lot more than you do and regards you with a healthy contempt. I used to find that sentiment gloomy and unhelpful, but it’s growing on me.
(I was just listening to a podcast about Stephen King in which it’s mentioned how many Stephen King characters get motorbikes after Stephen himself did. Definitely a writer who is continually processing his experiences into fiction in a way that’s sometimes transparent, though it would be dangerous to imagine it’s always transparent. Me? Student and beneficiary and student again, I have to remind myself to imagine people with jobs. When I get a full-time job, you can bet my characters will do the same, and I’ll have to remind myself to write children, students, and the mysteriously holidaying).
Also, the fantasy the story is working with is sometimes boring to me. Narnia. Do you know how many books have responded to Narnia? Bajillions! But oh well, here’s me doing the same.
(Works referred to: Wish I Was Here, by M. John Harrison; the ‘Just King Things’ podcast.)