15 June 2004

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Nightshade Books will soon be releasing The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison, the first time the novel has been published in the U.S. I'm working on an extended essay about this book along with Harrison's Light and Signs of Life, so I'm not going to say much here except that The Course of the Heart is worth both your money and your time, though, as with all of Harrison's writings, it demands a lot of the reader, and the ratio of reward to effort depends on what you're willing to bear.

In the print version of a Locus interview with Harrison, The Course of the Heart is described as "literary fantasy" (to contrast with the "literary science fiction" of Signs of Life), a problematic term for many reasons, but I suppose it was intended to both honor Harrison's ambitions and skills and to warn readers that if they're looking for a David Eddings clone, then perhaps this isn't the book for them.

The Course of the Heart tells the story of three friends who, in some sort of rite they participated in while in college, managed to break a small connection to what they call (after the Gnostics) "the pleroma" -- a connection that has haunted, terrified, and driven them to ruin ever since. (Readers familiar with Harrison's short stories may recognize this as the central concept of "The Great God Pan", and a slightly altered version of that story makes up the first forty or so pages of Course of the Heart.)

Many of the themes and techniques familiar to readers of Harrison's other works are apparent here -- mysteries that are unsolved and perhaps even delusional, but that deeply affect the lives of the characters; characters who are floundering, unhappy, self-destructive, obnoxious, violent, ill; an accumulative narrative structure that is less devoted to plot than to incident and imagery; prose that is precise and coldly beautiful. There's a ruthlessness to Harrison's imaginings that is far more unsettling than the ostentatious splatterings of so many writers whose books get put on the "Horror" shelves of bookstores.

Harrison is an easy writer to admire -- he is a master of all the basic elements of fiction, his best work has the resonance and subtlety of a great chamber concert -- and yet a difficult writer to embrace, one about whom I would have trouble saying, "He's a pleasure to read." The Viriconium books have their pleasures, as does Light, and a number of the short stories are simply overwhelming in their power, but often I have found it difficult to keep reading Harrison's books, because their shape generally doesn't start to become clear until the novel is nearly finished, and getting to the finish requires spending time with characters who are often desperate and pitiful. Many readers, I'm sure, have reached the end of Course of the Heart and Signs of Life and said, "That's it?", not realizing that the questions and plot points they thought were most important were not. Harrison is one of the few writers who is so determinedly, yet subtly, original that we must read him to learn how to read him. Rereading his novels, I'm finding, reveals them to be somewhat different than I perceived them to be on a first reading -- they feel less cruel a second time, more ordered, but somehow more ethereal. If I can manage a third reading, perhaps they will be even more different.

I'm glad Nightshade is bringing Harrison to an American audience, and that Light will be released by Spectra in August, because it gives a new audience a chance to read, reread, and discuss him.

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