On M. John Harrison’s Sunken Lands

I always struggle to think about what to say about books that are The… Books… Of… The… Season! This is no exception. It’s a brilliant and unsettling thing, like holding a book that slowly turns into a silvery fish in your hands and you’ve been reading its scales the whole time. The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again is one of those books that changes how we see the world, what details we select to tell our stories. Near the end of the book, I put it down to go for a walk in the dark, in the wee hours. Harrison has this fairly famous short story “Egnaro” about a whole world hidden in plain sight for those who can see the signs of the strange, unknown country. These signs are mundane, everyday sorts of things, but when presented inside the narrative illuminate a whole new way of seeing the everyday, like there is a hidden kingdom just past the orange crate that was accidentally read backwards. On my walk, I thought about what might illuminate my own landscape, to reveal what sunken lands I have at hand. I gazed into the sky and watched the bright stars dip in and out among the passing clouds, like slow flickering. I watched the stillness beneath the flat streetlight amber, with bits of broken styrofoam packaging tumbling about. A cat came up to me – some neighbor’s cat, well-kept with a flea collar and clean, shiny coat – and mewed at me, demanding my affection. I didn’t have my dog with me, whose leg is still healing from a light sprain, so I was accosted by the animal, and it threatened to trip me if I didn’t stop to pet the animal. The birds were singing in the darkness. The dogs were still. At the edge of every home there is a drainage area for the spring storms that come and I studied those edges, where the unkempt grass devoured bits of wet paper and old food packaging. In the green belts back there, anything could be living there. I know we have some homeless folks that meander about the place, and feral cats, and snakes. Reading M. John Harrison into the wee hours means becoming aware of these edges and fringes and strange places in the mundane. It’s the kind of writer who could describe anything – a trip to a restaurant with a new, estranged girlfriend, for example – and turn it over into a whole new landscape of imagery and idea.

Shaw, the main character of this book, is suffering from some sort of breakdown in middle age, and shuffles off to a very small room with a shared toilet near a river. He tries to connect with his mother, who has dementia. She had left a string of broken families and children behind her in her younger days, and keeps referring to her son by the wrong name. Everything is unsettled, breaking down. There is a financial collapse and a crisis of sorts that closes old stores. Green people seem to be slowly emerging from hidden corners and pipes and toilets and rivers. A book of anti-evolution The Water Babies from Victorian times stalks the scenery. It reads like a conspiracy theorist describing the very city, itself, the world, illuminated and enervated by the unknown and unknowable mystery just past the edge of what we are trained to see of our homes, where they see a little farther and connect other dots.

I don’t know what else to say. It’s a brilliant book, and changes the way you see your home, your city, your country, your life. It challenges the expected narrative of life and society and progress. It’s the book of hte season, and worthy of it. Read it when you can.

Categories: Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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