The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again returns to the themes of 1997’s Signs of Life (which by coincidence I read for the first time a couple of months before this). Weathered by time, the new treatment is considerably less dramatic, the intricately eroded extrusions of a formerly vast sandstone tower, or a non-conformist friend who has long outgrown the need to spread discomfort. The results, I suspect, will only further strengthen Harrison’s reputation as a luminary of literature to be relished by future generations, as much as they may further refine his audience range today.
Much like Signs of Life, Harrison’s new novel features an aimless man drawn to work for a wild outlier, and details his on-off relationship with a somewhat feckless woman. China, evergreen boy racer and co-founder of a business business transporting medical waste, becomes Shaw, a man who drifts through life and crisis with equal confusion. Choe, the gnomic wildcard demagogue, becomes Tim, an entrepreneur who apparently makes money – not that money is ever seen, or really discussed – shipping esoteric theories around the country along with bottles of what is packaged as water. Isobel, and her literal desire to become a bird, becomes Victoria who has a severe case of ennui in pursuit of brief glimpses of the inexplicable. The characters have all grown past the need for melodrama in their lives, instead intent on exploring their own beliefs and psyches.
The plot, as much as it exists, isn’t really critical to an understanding of the book. Suffice to say the Other is given form and once you change you don’t come back. It’s rarely glimpsed in off-colour skin and diminutive figures, flashes of something almost – but not quite – odd enough to concern people. There’s is a recurring refrain of The Water Babies, those closest to change increasingly obsessed with the book. Meanwhile Shaw visits his mother who is succumbing to dementia, and never questions what Tim tells him, and Victoria renovates a house and fails to integrate with a Welsh border town community.
Shaw, who frames the novel, exists with a lack of awareness of his internal world that makes him an absence, a symbolic collection of dialogues and actions that trouble us as much as his limited experience of the events of the novel trouble him. His fragmentary mother – both her mind and the endless half-siblings fracturing her role as his mother – collected through photos is a metaphor we relate to. Combined with Victoria’s incomplete house and unknown father, the mystery is available to us as a set on discrete elements which only crystallise if we impose alignment on them.
Meanwhile Victoria (who is much more likeable than Shaw, with her enthusiasm and drive to engage with people) inhabits, inherits and renovates her estranged mother’s house, all the while trying to find out who she really was. It’s her relationship with Pearl that gives us the closest interaction with the Events of these times, but even these are deliberately underplayed. Shallow ponds, inches deep, that have no impact on the grass they submerge are the portals, seemingly innocuous but resolutely one way. We can only deduce what they contain, never confirm.
Harrison’s work is increasingly punctuated with teleological questions that create an impressionistic world. It’s a metaphysical exercise in creation as a means, not an end. Narrative becomes a flood of ideas, images, sensations and intertextual references, collated around the blithely unaware protagonists. It’s because Harrison seems perfectly at ease with the mechanics of the illusion, arbitrary yet universal, and instead has focused on deconstructing the spell, that the unwary may find themselves disrupted by this book. There’s no easy leading through the maze to be had, instead an invitation to get lost, to walk the intertwined pathways and find your own way home.
It’s why he remains a cult figure, despite Light having been a sales hit (when a fraction of those people made it to the wondrous Empty Space, for instance). Most people don’t like it if you make the form a subject of interrogation, abandoning high stakes and the hero’s journey, placing the tension off-stage and spending as much time roaming the scenery as you do with the characters. It’s like Waiting for Godot (frequently just as funny as well) crossed with Koyaanisqatsi. It’s all a bit weird, but not in a way you can easily describe to those who haven’t seen.
The feeling is that of an errant film crew realising the next series of Grand Designs they’re making equates to precisely zero achievement from any perspective, and, so shorn of the compulsion to create narrative out of everything, they take their cameras up into the hills to find the experiential world (and possibly some psilocybin), whilst in the town below the vast and wild idea that a separate evolutionary line is emerging gleefully skips into the sunset with their truth.
Ultimately Shaw raids Tim’s secret closet – Tim doesn’t care, having passed on long before – and discards an anodyne body into the Thames. It’s a potentially frustrating moment for the unwary, where the many questions implied in the book are discarded with a similar ease. If you haven’t found your own answers by that point you’ll need to take a punt on ‘What actually happened’. It’s in the snippets of overheard conversations, passing strangers’ phone calls, and excised clauses of radio stations, that we must assign our meanings. Shaw could be any of his mother’s children; Victoria has left it too late to know her mother; the other people are our future, or our past, or something else. The text exists as cascading strata of potential context, and any desire to assign the Author’s meaning will lead to dissatisfaction.
This isn’t to suggest Harrison is teasing us, instead that he has perhaps spent a career trying to isolate prose, even the constituent images, with uniquely intractable yet fascinating results. Of course your mileage may vary – that’s the whole point.