Wednesday, August 24, 2011

M. John Harrison, Viriconium (2005)

This omnibus actually consists of four books: the novels The Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1980), and In Viriconium (1982); and the short-story collection Viriconium Nights. If you think I read it entirely because of China Miéville's recommendation, allow me to present you with a symbolic--and entirely worthless in literal terms--prize.

Miéville's blurb here--that Harrison's failure to win a Nobel Prize demonstrates the bankruptcy--bankruptcy, I say!--of the literary establishment--seems a tad hyperbolic to me. I mean really now, if the failure of Borges to win hadn't already demonstrated that, ain't nothin' gonna. Still, these are some pretty darned impressive pieces of work.

The Pastel City is actually a fairly straightforward thing. I can easily describe the plot, and this description might well put you to sleep: the king is dead, and his insurgent niece is rising up against his daughter, the rightful queen; therefore, the only option is for surviving members of the king's élite force to get the band back together and show everyone what's what. And that is about that. Still, even here you can see Harrison's descriptive skill, and there's a sense of pervasive entropy--that the world is winding down--throughout that gives the novel more resonance than it might have. This isn't exactly like Miéville, but the influence on the latter author is obvious: there's a strong sense of ancient, mysterious worlds lurking here, the difference being that in Miéville you don't get the impression that they're necessarily unknowable, whereas here that's the whole point. There are deliberately-unanswered questions about what this world is, exactly; from the use of occasional phrases in foreign languages, as well as the odd familiar name, we are given to believe that it has something to do with the "real" world, but nothing is made clear.

A Storm of Wings is fairly unproblematic as a sequel to The Pastel City, eighty years later--that is, there's nothing in the book that contradicts the previous volume, as far as I can see--but wow, is it ever a lot weirder. This time, it's not really clear what the "quest" is per se--weird things keep happening, often involving insect imagery, and some characters--most of them haunted by an inability to remember or conceptualize the past, in one way or another--go north. And some of them come back. Things happen. There's only so much I can say without moving into spoiler territory, but this is really fascinatingly bizarre stuff. The only real criticism I might have is that the ending…well, it kinda explains things. In a weird way, no doubt, but I think the book was more effective leaving this shit completely inexplicable.

What made Harrison return to this world (if you want to call it that) with such a vengeance after a nine-year hiatus? And, more to the point, did he have In Viriconium in mind while writing A Storm of Wings? Because this is where he reaches escape velocity: you cannot even begin to reconcile this with the previous novels; it's its own, really indescribable thing. "Surrealist" might be the (admittedly fairly obvious) word you would go with. Here's, well, here's basically what happens: there's a portrait painter, Ashlyme, who is obsessed with an artist named Audsley King who is supposedly the greatest in her age; unfortunately, she is living in the "low city," a place currently suffering a "plague," of sorts, which seems to be more a sort of existential lassitude than anything else. He's obsessed with the idea that he has to get her out of there before she succumbs, but she won't go. Meanwhile, there are these two guys called the Barley Brothers messing around the city; they don't seem to do much of anything beyond childish pranks and sundry petty larcenies, but they are nonetheless felt in some vague way to be demiurges of a sort. And there's an insane dwarf called "The Grand Cairo" who is supposedly working for the Barley Brothers in some unspecified capacity and who gets Ashlyme, unwillingly, involved in his…stuff. That's about all I can say, really; it's clearly a novel to some extent about artistic responsibility and integrity; in his introduction to the book, Neil Gaiman perceptively notes that, looked at in a certain way, you can see it as a rewrite of The Pastel City, but basically, I've never read a fantasy novel like this, and that's a damn good thing: Harrison casually flits away from the imaginatively-stultified mire that is contemporary fantasy. Real literary stuff.

Viriconium Nights, a collection of seven short stories, is basically more of the same, and goes even further towards making damn well sure that nobody try to construct all this as one coherent "world:" characters from past novels appear in different and contradictory roles, and even the name of the city is inconsistent; in this story it's "Urconium," in that one "Virik." Naturally, it's a heterogenous bunch; some, like "The Lamia & Lord Cromis" and the (almost-)title story, are comparatively straightforward (note that "comparatively" is doing a LOT of work in that sentence); some, like "Strange Great Sins" and "The Dancer from the Dance" are more abstruse, and "The Luck in the Head" is seriously the most inexplicable fucking thing I have ever read in my entire life. It ends with "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium," which breaks down the barrier between that world and this once and for all; I realize the phrase "quietly devastating" is a little hackneyed, but I know no better descriptor for it.

So yeah, this book is absolutely recommended, for itself and also to remind you what fantasy can be like when it's unfettered by banal, restrictive ideas about elves and orcs.


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