Icky Writing About Ichthy-Anthrops: A review of The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison
The 16th Century writer John Lyly wrote in his book Euphues — An Anatomy of Wit, “Fish and guests in three days are stale,” which Benjamin Franklin turned into “Fish, like guests, begin to smell after three days.” I’ll tackle this point later when I talk novelistic characters and fish in the book The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, and its stench after three hours of reading.
A book reviewer judges a tug of rope contest where on one end is the pull of an author’s intention and on the other end is the pull of the functioning of the sum total of the author’s final decisions. We hope the intentions are carried by the form in service of a function of novelistic agency, drive, and decisiveness. When the author’s intention is weak or absent, so is the book reviewer lost. And for that matter, probably so is the reader.
Bear with me a moment. Philosopher Alain Badiou suggested there were three principle orientations for philosophy that may be used as a lens for considering novels. These are the hermeneutic, in which our process of interpreting becomes critical, and according to Badiou can bring forth meaning from previously obscure, latent, or hidden meaning. The great short story The Pedersen Kid by William H. Gass springs to mind. There are the analytic, in which the language becomes critical, that aligns with the type B novel in the categorization of Anthony Burgess. Burgess’ own works are of this stature. Utterances become objects of interest with focus on the syntax, for example. Then there is the postmodern, that when applied to novels exhibit aspects such as deconstruction as a feature wherein great structures are often questioned or dismantled and a totalization may not emerge. Pynchon sits in this orientation.
But there is another orientation found in the class A type of novel that Burgess identified. It consists in part of all the sorts of sloppy thinking that Hegel spent a good part of his Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit saying we are wise to avoid. These are novels that draw upon the lowest common denominator of convention and cliche, that raise up and worship tropes, that strive for the easily consumable. This is mass market (by which I mean the continuum from Dan Brown to the most up-market pulp — often said to be oooh, slightly literary but still accessible to the hoi poloi) oriented fiction that remains shackled by plot, convention, and cheap emotional ear twisting. Oprah Book club novels would fit this definition.
But what if a novel lacks orientation. (The most mass marketed of the mass market novels at least have an orientation, as basic as it may be.) What if a novel is so all over the place with no rhyme nor reason that readers become peevish due to bewilderment? What happens when a reviewer cannot discern any coherent intention by the author?
The answer is found in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (SLBRA).
In my view, when writers who spend the vast majority of their careers writing genre novels attempt to play with the big kids in a realm of serious literature, they most normally end up way out of their league. Stephen King tried this with Hearts in Atlantis and only began to succeed in one section. Am I saying that SLBRA fails, and fails in the most ordinary ways. Yes.
But how can I say this when non-fiction writer Robert Macfarlane blurbed about Harrison, “Simply one of the best writers of fiction currently at work in English”? I can only reply, “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah.” You can quote me.
The book may have won the Goldsmiths prize for “fiction that breaks the mould,” yeah, it breaks it all right the way a dog with diarrhea breaks the cleanliness of a kitchen floor. Three shortlisted authors in particular must be miffed as hell.
How can I say this when judge and biographer Frances Wilson said, as quoted in The Guardian, “a literary masterpiece that will continue to be read in 100 years time, if the planet survives that long”? To which I reply, quoting myself, “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah.”
And Poor Martin Amis, poor A.S. Byatt, poor Will Self, poor Zadie Smith, poor David Mitchell, poor David Peace (to name a few authors on the same Island). All their years of dedication to the novelist form, once hailed as practitioners and vanguards in a long line of the great form developed and put forth into the world by Bunyan, Burney, Goldsmith and Fielding only to be shown up, in Macfarlane’s view, by SLBRA, to which I answer, once again quoting myself, “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah.”
My. (Well, actually the author’s)
I cannot in good faith as a writer of fiction recommend that anyone read The Sunken Land Beings to Rise Again — no matter what the publicity hype coughs out.
Consider this a warning as though from a literary taste-tester. And here’s my prediction: SLBRA won’t be read in 100 years time let alone 1 years time. If I’m wrong, then Thatcher’s market economy TINA brainwashing combined with UK literary ultranationalism is worse than I thought.
What exactly is wrong with SLBRA? Everything novelistic. I’ll explain some of these issues in a fairly messy manner (nods to the author). SLBRA starts out painfully slow with many equal length sentences. An example would sound like this: ‘Lots of sentences are constructed like this one, and others are also constructed like this one.’ As you see the comma is critical. There is a great deal of telling instead of showing throughout the book for no sustaining reason. This in turn indicates the author’s problem of emphasizing everything, no matter how unnecessary to a plot that may be compared to a sack of recyclables.
Shaw is a man who has either an uncanny ability or a fetish for smelling people’s soap, deodorant, and gel. He gets to be the main character for about 2/5 of the book. Victoria, his not really a girlfriend gets to bore us for about another 2/5 of the book. The last 1/5 of the book focuses on various other people, don’t ask why. Shaw is seeing and not seeing Victoria who does and does not want a relationship with him. Shaw gets a job with Tim. Victoria leaves London for Shropshire land near the Severn River. Shaw works for Tim. Shaw often visits his mother who has dementia. He ignores emails from Victoria. Victoria meets Pearl and they buy a lot of junk for Victoria’s new house. Pearl likes to swim. (Get it? Pearls are found in the water. Water is a clue to the theme, get it?) Shaw and Tim often take the train to Helen’s house. Pearl disappears. Victoria hears people whispering something like “vita” or “vira” (or aqua vitae, or veni, vidi, vici, or vatever — another through-line that never goes anywhere). Tim knows and sleeps with Annie, the leader of seances. Shaw and Victoria see each other again but then Victoria disappears again. Victoria sells her house. Shaw quits his job with Tim and gets a new living arrangement. The end.
Throughout swims some vague secret about fish, that evidently (and as it’s not spelled out I’m surmising here) on some idea of people developing either from fish in an evolutionary progression from the day mud puppies crawled out of the primordial soup, or a sort of genetic fish-people who live among us — I prefer to use my made up ichthy-anthrops, or some people are somehow able turn into unnamed sorts of ichthy-anthrops. None of this is stated explicitly because, you know, wink wink, readers love a secret and especially a vague one, so the less the author talks about it the more secretive it is.
Now a lot has been said about the author’s overuse of pubs in this book so I counted. Shaw prefers pubs. Note well, on the other hand, after Victoria moves to Shropshire land she tends toward tea dens. Why should we note this? No reason, per no reason for about any other decision in the book.
A pub in Hackney (unnamed)
A pub on King Street, Hammersmith (unnamed)
Bulles Head, Straw-on-Green
Fox at Hanwell Bridge (2x)
One night of snug-hopping (all unnamed)
Earl of March (9x that I can tell, by far Shaw’s favorite)
Black Horse (someone else goes there)
(I don’t think a bottle of Sainsbury’s pinot downed near a window quite qualifies as a pub)
Terrace Bar (although it’s unclear whether Shaw drank there or only went in for a piddle).
The fish theme is the most important and we have the constant drum beat of fish themed things, food, a sculpture, books, etc, just in case we read five pages and forget there is a big fishy thing going on that we won’t know about because it’s a secret. It may be that by the end of the book Pearl, Victoria, Annie, and Tim either were/are/become ichthy-anthrops. But we don’t care whichever way they end up or don’t end up.
The writing itself, once the story starts to move, which takes about ten pages, runs higgledy-piggledy with seemingly no aim or focus. Let’s be clear, this is not a literary conceit of beautiful, difficult, and subtle headiness that simple readers cannot fathom. I have a predilection for that type of writing as well as the elliptical. No, this is just “a fine kettle of fish” (to go with Oliver Hardy). The only, and I mean only thing half decent are a few descriptions of the landscape.
Since Harrison wants to go to Shropshire with his Lass and Lad, then I will too:
“Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.”
(A.E. Houseman, A Shropshire Lad, LXII)
And SLBRA certainly does.
I think a few examples of the writing will prove that SLBRA is not a deliberate literary crafting nor an expansion of the rich history of novel writing to be taken seriously. Indeed, how, in reading these sentences could anyone speak of the author as, what was that phrase, one of the “…best writers of fiction currently at work in English”?
- “Behind him could be seen a vague shadow, a sketchy appearance, of a room.” It would be obvious that a room would be behind someone who is either standing in the doorway or standing in the room itself.
- Shaw plays his favorite song on his thirteen-inch Mac-Book with a “rubbery base of which had deformed in some over-heating event,” etc, etc. This is a god-awful example of how everything gets undue description and jumps from specified to unspecified in a manner that if pursued could be submitted to the Bulwer-Lytton prize.
I believe the author may have pulled inspiration from Dickens’ Bleak House with “grease” substituting for “fog” in one repetitious passage, and the side fancy of a long meaningless and unfathomable court case about a man who saw something green, fishy, and foetus-like in a toilet. Ah ha, the fishy secret bobs up once again. Yes, this fishy stuff is designed to be the readerly hook and one can’t be thumped up side of the head enough with it. I’ll push another connection that has no import, what I personally find to be a nod to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with a chapter titled Victoria’s Progress in which she goes on a walk. No, don’t think there’s any saving grace here, it’s as bad a chapter as the others and I’m being extremely generous in pushing hard what may not be any connection at all. Again, without obvious authorial intention I can only speculate.
- I don’t understand this sentence at all, “Eating her lunch like a burger, she had spilled pickle on her bleached denim dungarees.” Was she eating her lunch of burger in the way that a burger eats? Is this play on Heidegger’s Dasein, als solche, A burger only knows itself in the eating of itself and as it is given in the world? I almost want to ibid myself here.
- “Victoria possessed only the sketchiest idea of where her future might lie.” Yo dude, just some lil sentence from my bff, lmao.
- “A few months later, Keith died under anaesthetic during a routine varicose vein procedure. By then Jasmine, as puzzled by Shaw as she had been by Keith, had gone off with a tree surgeon.” Don’t fret, this Peyton Place prattle is someones meaningless remembrance that we can file into the book’s thick folder of unwanted words, that includes many flashbacks, dreams of people that are tediously related, and the aggravating go-nowhere chats between Shaw and his dementia suffering mother.
Second course: more fish references and people are all reading The Water Babies, in case we haven’t gotten the idea of possible ichthy-anthrops.
- “Shaw stood in the doorway. He became convinced there was another person in the room with them, then recognised in a single pure instant that it was himself.” Don’t you just hate it when you do that?
By the end of the book Shaw has moved into a flat with Ob and Em, those are their names, I kid you not. He’s drinking less we know because of the crafted sentence, “He drank less.” Finally, Shaw sits reading an email on his Mac (MacBook Air this time), “He read this over, added, ‘Anyway, how is it with you?’ then stared at the email box while the roulette of things hovered between delete and send.” I won’t tell whether he hit send or not. I’d hate to give away an ending to a poor-plot book, it might be all it has.
By the way, if you think I’m off base here, go onto Amazon and read the top reviews of the novel and you’ll see that people are unable to provide a clear overview of the book or plot, they are confused with some saying that maybe the book is engaging in some sly endeavor that is simply beyond them. It’s not. Or, I think some are playing the role of an audience granting the author agency without warrant, an idea common to beginning artists and writers who in critiques say that an audience will and should ‘make of it what they will,’ it being their created work, as though an artist or author had no intention or concept in creating the work. Only later, with more experience do these new artists realize what a foolish position that was. Or I should revise, some of them realize this.
SLBRA is an addlebrained, pedestrian book that I found lacking drive, energy, and form. It builds to nothing more than time spent. This fishy fest sink, sank, sunk and all that rises is the awareness that it stink, stank, stunk.