Zak Smith: The Last Book I Loved, Viriconium


imagedb-21M. John Harrison is doomed.

Here is what is going to happen to him: in ten or twelve years, after the Hollywood development people have clawed past the Dunes and Narnias and Spider-Men and have begun to see the bottom of the complexly-constructed-fictional-realities-that-can-be-plausibly-turned-into-mammoth-SFX-epics barrel, Harrison’s work will be discovered and turned into films. This discovery will probably be at least partially due to all the hip, young science-fiction and fantasy writers currently claiming him as an influence–writers who will have many films to their names by then and who I hesitate to name here because they are all so much worse than he is that listing them would give the reader the wrong impression entirely. The films will be terrible because his books aren’t really about things you can film, and he will go back to being ignored and, if he hasn’t died already, he’ll die.

This is because, unlike fellow fantasists like Tolkien or Asimov or William Gibson, the best thing about Harrison is not the thoroughness with which he imagines his worlds–although he’s no slouch in imagining–but the power of the language he uses to animate them. In other words, M. John Harrison can write–really write–not just describe strange situations with words.  In his best work, he writes as well as our best authors–Pynchon, Amis, Nabokov.  No computer-generated blockbuster will manage to get any of the bleakly magnificent prose that makes Harrison genuinely unique on the screen.

Harrison is marooned in a ghetto.  People afraid of ghettos, or who only know ghettos from what makes it onto the news, will not know his name. Harrison has written mainstream fiction, and it is lackluster; his verbal imagination is like William Burroughs’s or the Comte de Lautreamont’s–it is at its most intense when the entire environment can be bent to his psycholinguistic will.  If you can imagine a world where Borges was only ever published in Del Ray paperback editions with minotaurs on the cover, then you can imagine how fucked M. John Harrison is.

The children of the ghetto are unanimous about the man:

– K. J. Bishop: “M. John Harrison is a true master of English prose.”
– Michael Marshall Smith: “No-one can use words like M. John Harrison. They trust him. The Viriconium books show astonishing poetry and depth.”
– Graham Joyce: “M. John Harrison is a writer whose work detonates in the mind after putting the book down. His prose runs like silk but his ideas work like some principle of atomic fission. I’m in awe of his writing powers.”
– Richard Morgan: “Word for word, probably the greatest prose stylist working in the English language in any genre.”
– Elizabeth Hand: “Harrison’s Viriconium is the jewel in the crown of 20th-century fantasy, a work that proves irrefutably that fantastic literature can be Art with a capital A…”
– China Mieville: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment.”

And they are not alone. Gravity’s Rainbow is the only book I own with more glowing and articulate reviews crammed in ahead of the table of contents than Viriconium–a collection of Harrison’s best stories, mostly from the early ’80s.  The reviews that aren’t from sci-fi and fantasy authors are from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Kirkus Review–pretty much any major publishing organ that feels obliged to hire someone to read fantastic literature and talk about whether it’s any good.  While people apparently only read Harrison because they’re getting paid to or because they work in the same ghetto, once they do they all decide he’s great.  Let’s try it:

“Nothing lives about these beaches but limpets and kelp, a few curiously furtive terns which survive for the most part by eating one another’s eggs, and in season a handful of deformed seals.”

“The words fell from his soft mouth one by one like pieces of pork.”

“Everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly; while down below, among the ragwort on the towpath, writhed the thousand-and-one black and yellow caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, some fat and industrious, rearing up their blunt, ugly heads, others thin and scruffy and torpid.  The Barley brothers ate them and were sick.”

When I read, I am in the habit of creating a sort of thumb-index by drawing small arrows across the exposed edges of the stacked pages of the book which point to any page where I find a good line or a fine idea (the two things merge in the best prose).  My copy of Viriconium looks like the Battle of Hastings.

So: ignore whatever turgid cover they’ve given Viriconium this printing; ignore the faux-portentious taglines they’ve embossed in whatever fairy-font across the top; ignore the introduction by whatever popular second-rate imagineer they’ve hauled up to write it; ignore the sneer of the checkout girl, and buy Viriconium—a collection of three novels and a handful of short stories about an imaginary city.

Readers afraid of anything with a sword in it can still get their money’s worth if they just read the third book–In Viriconium–which is only a fantasy novel genealogically speaking.  What it resembles most is a mid-20th-century surrealist novel. In it a disheveled portrait painter, an inventor, and a self-absorbed midget attempt to rescue a great artist from an enigmatic plague while wearing ridiculous disguises (“It looked like a horse’s head, newly scraped to the bone in a knacker’s yard and decked with green paper ribbons for some festival”) and despite all this, it is never the least bit wacky.  It is elegant, elegiac, enigmatic, funny, horrible, and sublime.

If the exact novel had been written by Julio Cortazar or Salman Rushdie, In Viriconium would be available in a slim, impressively-designed, and expensive pastel volume with a blurb from Harold Bloom on the back, but we are lucky: readers who fall for In Viriconium’s can just turn the cheap, grainy page and keep reading more novels.

A Storm of Wings will be the first one to get optioned by the movie people–a handful of eccentric and barely adequate heroes go on a quest that ends in a Gnostic apocalypse where they struggle against an accidental invasion of their reality by ignorant alien insects.  Cronenberg is the obvious choice to handle the bugs, but there are probably a lot of directors who’d be willing to make a go of it, given the right budget:

“From wounds like women’s lips had bloomed a fantastic, irrelevant anatomy: drooping feathery antennae, trembling multi-jointed legs, a thousand mosaic eyes, vibrating palps, and purposeless plates of chitin.”

But will any of them have the range, irony, and patience to go from there to the icy melancholy of…

“What of Viriconium–Pastel City and erstwhile centre of the world–at this desperate conjunction, amid the mass abdication of real things and the triumph of metaphysics? . . . Her cold plazas and antique alleys reeking of cabbage accept their fate . . . Her people accept their fate: they are so superstitious that they believe almost everything, and so vulgar they have noticed hardly anything.”

The first novel in the book–The Pastel City, was written nine years before A Storm of Wings, and, while certainly the most conventional piece in the collection, has as much fun with it’s genre as Raymond Chandler has with his.  The rest of the stories range from the gorgeous to the bafflingly diffused, but all reiterate the idea that Harrison’s Viriconium is less one city than a sliding labyrinth of notions about place and time that can be reconfigured to the needs of any particular story–like a less detached and abstractly arty version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This idea is not only central to Viriconium, it’s also essential to understanding why it works so well.  The best fantastic fiction justifies itself by using the past or the future or some imaginary combination of the two not as a place to go to escape reality, but as a place where ideas about reality can be tested without the distraction of keeping things familiar. So Viriconium is mutable: What’s revealed in one story is an obscure legend in another; what’s a plot point in one is a distant metaphor in the next. Place names change, characters become altered analogues of themselves.  The history, geography, and rituals of Viriconium bend to the need to understand this or that quiet corner of human psychology, not the need to pump out a plot that will allow us to tour the author’s marvelous inventions or pretend to kill exotic animals.

What else to say?  There are characters named Dissolution Kahn and Osgerby Practal; there is a genius so old he forgets at intervals who he is and why he lives in a fortress filled with brilliantly-constructed machines; there is “a frail, organic pink” light, there are Analeptic Kings.  The words burn like embers.  It’s a very, very good book.


More Rumpus’ The Last Book I Loved

The Rumpus interview with Zak Smith

Zak Smith is an artist who first came to prominence with his mammoth work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow. Smith's paintings and drawings are held in major public and private collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We Did Porn— a book includng drawings and stories about his experiences working in the adult film industry— his third book and his first to include writing— will be published in July 2009 from Tin House Books. He lives and works in Los Angeles. More from this author →