Speaking of strange stories… M. John Harrison is a writer I’ve just recently caught onto, and while he’s most famous (in some circles, infamous) for his restless, kaleidoscopic approaches to fantasy (in his Viriconiumstories) and science fiction (his more recent Light trilogy) honed over the last 50-something years, I’ve fallen in love with his novels and stories in which the uncanny and numinous encroach on a “realist” milieu. The Course of the Heart is one of my favorite novels and his most recent work, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is in a similar vein.
Harrison is extremely cagey about his process and the intentions of his writing, but if he could be said to have a thesis, it’s best articulated in a blog post from 2007, in which he expresses a distrust in traditional notions of writing and the demands of fiction (not to mention the ideological underpinnings of those things). “My feeling,” he writes, “is that the reader performs most of the act of writing. A book spends a very short time being written into existence; it spends the rest of its life being read into existence.” A writer who expressly attempts to guide or intermediate the relationship between reader and text, therefore, stifles something about it.
You might interpret this as an inquiry into how an author can write while knowing that he is dead, in the Barthesian sense, even as he writes. He intimates it as a kind of game: The writer “… present(s) a spread of more or less “possible” interpretations tied to the themes & meanings of the story.” The rest of the work of comprehension and interpretation is necessarily done by the reader.
It is, as you might imagine, a controversial way of writing. The work is purposefully enigmatic, carried by Harrison’s clear, psychologically incisive prose style and, in the case of his more overt genre work, a conceptual imagination that is practically assaultive in its depth and breadth.
‘Cicisbeo’ carries all the hallmarks of Harrison’s realist-adjacent fiction, which is to say that it exhibits his writerly preoccupations – romantic dysfunction, failures of will and communication, uncanny unreality borne from repression and emotional agitation. The story follows the narrator character as he navigates a tense relationship between his best friend Lizzie and her husband Tim. Lizzie is newly pregnant and Tim has retreated to live in their attic, decoupling from his family even as his daughter is born.
As Sunyi Dean points out on the Elder Sign podcast, Cicisbeo is an Italian term with no simple English equivalent, referring essentially to a man kept by a woman, the gender-swap equivalent of a mistress. The protagonist of the story has an unfulfilled desire for Lizzie that is unmistakably tinged with resentment. Lizzie, for her part, implores him ceaselessly to parlay with Tim on her behalf, and the awkwardness between the protagonist and Tim seems haunted by shared recognition of the former’s desire.
Harrison’s characters hear in fragments peppered into summary – orphan lines of dialogue, free of context and ominous in their uncertain meaning, are often overheard in his stories. Characters tend to talk past one another even in direct interface, often seeming to speak in asides to themselves, referencing comprehensions or opinions that they don’t fully share with each other or the reader. But the broad strokes of motivation seep through even so – the narrator becomes, over the course of the story, a bruise-pressing voyeur, Lizzie is self-pitying and manipulative, and Tim is avoidant and dissociative. An unhealthy dynamic is evident.
The story culminates in a brief, spectacular scene of surrealism, a weird and mysterious vista whose implications for the continuing lives of the characters – and even the past events of the story – are left open to interpretation. Something has happened, party to its own physics and its own logic, that may or may not be metaphor. A lot of weird fiction writers claim lineage from Kafka, but few can be judged as bold as the surrealist master. Harrison is one of them.
First published in Talk of the Town (Independent On Sunday), September 2003. Collected in You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press 2017, and Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, Comma Press 2020. Text is reprinted on the Weird Fiction Review website here