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Anima
M. John Harrison
Gollancz, 473 pages

Anima
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

M. John Harrison Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: Things That Never Happen
SF Site Review: Light
SF Site Review: The Centauri Device
SF Site Review: Travel Arrangements
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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Before embarking on the journey, we should note that Anima is not a new novel by M. John Harrison; rather, it is a one-volume edition of his 1992 novel The Course of the Heart and his 1997 novel Signs of Life. Read from cover-to-cover in a short amount of time, Anima feels less like a book than an assault, a wound, an onslaught of dream-killing mirrors, a battalion of bloodthirsty words, an epidemic of images that burrow into the readerly brain and claw their way through the murk of accumulated wistfulness and self-delusion until all that's left is the petrified carcass of desire.

I don't mean to suggest that the novels lack humor or humanity. The laughter may be occasional, distant, ironic, bitter, sometimes even hollow, but it exists. And if the characters were merely hateful or pitiful or cardboard, then Harrison would be little more than a nihilist wielding caricatures drawn with bile. Instead, the characters in these stories are vivid in their longing, human in their missteps and regrets. They may not be "likeable," but they try, with all the persistence of the living, to wrench contentment from the tales they tell each other, to salvage hopes and dreams, to fend off ghosts.

Harrison weaves the seductions of ghost stories and eldritch tales between the lines of The Course of the Heart, and in Signs of Life propels the pages with the same fuel that fires near-future technothrillers and bioengineered science fiction. But these novels are only tangentially fantasy and science fiction; they glance toward the genre and turn away with a disgusted chuckle, dropping behind them the remnants of plot and mangled, regurgitated tropes, the shed skin and abandoned dreams of mad scientists or astrologers gone to seed. The narrator of Course of the Heart says, toward the end of the story, "My head felt like an empty cinema," and that's the sort of feeling these two novels convey: The reader begins by watching The Haunting or The Perfect Woman and soon realizes the movie has stopped, the audience is gone, and the only sound is the rhythmic slap of the final reel spinning in the projector.

These are stories of characters who want, and who want desperately. They want desperately to know things, they want desperately to be important to the world and to each other, they want desperately to be other than where they are who they are. In Signs of Life, Isobel Avens wants to have wings, and finds a way to fulfill her wish through disbelief-suspending surgery and the magic of modern medicines. The results are not exact, or exactly what she imagined; they are as metaphysical as physical, and the physical charges a hefty toll. "I just want you to need me for something," Mick, the narrator (who is also called China because his last name is Rose), tells Isobel as he looks over her suffering body. It's not the only thing he wants, but it's still too much. Mick has tried to be an honest, upstanding citizen throughout the story, but he also wants friendship and comfort and happiness and success, all of which, in Harrison's vision of post-Thatcher England, are antigens in the body politic.

In The Course of the Heart, three friends want to be freed from an act of their youth, an occult moment of gnostic crossing-over that escapes exact description and yet has drawn the outline of their days ever since, inserting ghostly anxieties into every peripheral vision. When the person who initiated the three dies, they are left to reconcile their realities as best they can. The details of what happened during the initiation are never revealed, because they don't matter: what matters is what came afterward. The novel is often bleak, but the bleakness is undercut with a fatalistic humor that, much like the characters' encounter in what they call "the Pleroma," draws our attention away from the immediate sufferings and toward a vaster universe: "They were like parts of the jellyfish, a million years ago, coming together for the sake of convenience and never being able to go back on the arrangement."

Stories -- fantasies -- make the vastness more particular, tame it, organize it until it is bearable, but when it's organized and bearable, it is no longer vast, no longer honest. Delusion is dangerous not because it is delusion, but because it is inexorable. In The Course of the Heart, one of the triumvirate of friends, Lucas, writes a story and creates a persona to try to capture and tame the effects of the force that haunts them:

He and Pam had been telling themselves the story of the Coeur for twenty years: its worth as an invention -- never mind as solace -- now depended as much on his ability to convince as on her desire to be convinced. This was the moment of greatest danger.
The desire to be convinced and the desire to convince are the twin aches of fantasies and lies, and both leave their bearers naked and vulnerable.

The main story of Course of the Heart is echoed in a subplot of Signs of Life, where a small-time gangster named Choe Ashton, a colleague-friend-rival-tormentor of Mick, returns each year to a place called Jumble Wood, where as an adolescent he had, he believes, a sexual encounter with a sort of wood nymph. In the epilogue of the novel, Mick discovers that Choe has returned to live in Jumble Wood and filled it with the toxic detritus of his life and work ("It was stuff that would glow in the dark," Mick says, beginning a lyrical litany of chemical compounds). Pastoral fantasy becomes poisoned by the effluents of high technology. It's as if the characters in Course of the Heart had poked a sewer pipe into the Coeur of the Pleroma. Mick links it all together in the end: "To understand how completely Choe jumped ship on his own dream is to understand the confidence which Isobel Avens maintained in hers." And then he brings himself into the picture, the reluctant dreamer, linking the three main characters as different faces of fancy and longing: Avens and Ashton, Choe and China, parts of a jellyfish.

By putting the two books together in one, Anima begins with youth, expectation, and desire, and ends with three middle-aged dreamers in different stages of being ravaged by their dreams, eviscerated by yearning, left with nothing left to want.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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