Friday, July 26, 2019

Birthday Review: The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

Birthday Review: The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

a review by Rich Horton

For M. John Harrison's birthday today I've resurrected this review which I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup almost exactly 15 years ago, in July of 2004.

(Cover by David Lloyd)
The Course of the Heart is a lovely book, first published in 1992, but perhaps emblematic of Harrison's relative commercial obscurity it didn't get an American edition until 2004.

Actually, here's what I wrote in introducing my post, which covered three prominent UK writers of fantastika who had established reputations outside the SF/F field:

Finally, Harrison, in my opinion the best of these three writers, is by far the least successful commercially. He established a mild reputation in the SF field in the early 70s with his first few novels, particularly several novels and stories set in an "industrial fantasy" world based around the city of Viriconium (or Uraconium, or Vira Con, or ... its name was as ambiguous as its nature). Best known of these is The Pastel City, which I discovered at random in the mid-70s and quite loved. Harrison's later novels, however, sometimes failed to find a US publisher. To my knowledge, Climbers has never been published in the US, and The Course of the Heart, from 1992, is only now being published here by the small press Night Shade Books. (His later novels Signs of Life (1997) and Light (2003) [plus its later sequels], did receive fairly timely US editions.) Harrison's "mainstream reputation" is based more on his very "literary" instincts, though most of his work is either outright SF or slipstream (or, in a term Harrison coined himself, "New Weird"). I believe Climbers may be pure mainstream (it is the only one of his novels I haven't read). The Course of the Heart has strong fantastical elements, but a very mainstream (or "literary") feel -- a bit reminiscent, perhaps, of Angela Carter.

I'm going to gloss what I wrote a bit in light of the 15 intervening years. First, I probably overstated Harrison's "obscurity" -- while it's undeniable that he's less prominent than Banks or Pratchett (both of whom, sadly, died fairly young within the past several years,) he's not "obscure", though the success of his trilogy beginning with Light certainly expanded his reputation, particularly with the SF field. Secondarily, I've become uneasy with the lazy habit I had back then of categorizing books as "literary" instead of "SF-ish", though Harrison is a writer with a broader readership in "literary" circles than many SF writers.

Anyway, on to The Course of the Heart. The narrator had apparently completed some mysterious magical act with two other young people during his university years. This act is never revealed (somewhat frustratingly) but it involved contact with another "plane of existence" (my words) called the Pleroma. It wasn't successful, and it seems to have mentally damaged the other two people: Lucas Medlar and Pam Stuyvesant. The narrator has perhaps (or not?) escaped unscathed. Lucas and Pam marry, but can never really settle, and eventually divorce. Pam is an epileptic, always difficult, and eventually gets cancer.

The story winds back and forth in time. The narrator spends some time involved with the sinister older man, Yaxley, who initiated the original magical experiment, and who is trying further experiments, including a vile act involving incest. None of the magic really seems to work, but it all seems to involve contact with incomprehensible things. The narrator also keeps in touch with Pam and Lucas, even after they divorce. His own life is conventional -- an ordinary, fairly successful, job; a sexy wife, a daughter. Things finally come to a head with Pam's cancer, and her decline and death.

Intertwined with all this is a travel narrative cum history of an imaginary Eastern European country. This is supposedly written by one "Michael Ashman", but we soon gather that this is all an invention of Lucas Medlar, with some degree of cooperation from Pam. This country is perhaps called "the Coeur" -- the Heart -- and it seems somehow connected with the Pleroma. It was destroyed by invasion, but in Lucas's conception, the Empress left descendants, who continued to carry some essence of the Coeur, suppressed for the most part. Eventually leading to -- of course -- Pam Stuyvesant. What does all this mean? I am not sure, but it rewards thinking about. I should add that the fictional Michael Ashman spent time in Czechoslovakia just prior to World War II, and patronized a Tarot-telling Gypsy whore, who surely died in a concentration camp -- thus bringing the central 20th century atrocity to the table. I don't at all know what to make of the novel, but it is beautifully written, very evocative, intriguing, erotic, sad -- a striking work.

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