When any venture exists with the primary motivation of love, rather than money, the person making that venture may as well take risks. This applies, most obviously, to romance, but it also explains quite succinctly why indie presses are thriving at present. With the fundamental purview to publish great writing, publishing houses like Comma Press and Influx and Dead Ink and Fitzcarraldo and And Other Stories and Dostoevsky Wannabe and Galley Beggar and many many others exist to avoid the normalisation of underwhelming prose. Independent presses — freed of the need to make a profit due to the expectation of not making one — are able to focus on works that have been (sometimes understandably, sometimes not) overlooked by a more commercially-motivated enterprise. Indie presses gift the readerly public an access to outside voices, outside narratives: short stories that are complexly literary, texts that play with conventions of genre and ideas of truthfulness, essays that curve towards a deeply niche interest, novels that beguile and unsettle with the intention of — satisfyingly — resolving nothing. You Should Come With Me Now (Comma Press, 2017) very much fits within this mode of writing: it is literary, experimental and full of nods and allusions to a range of complex ideas. It is uncompromising, unrelenting and dazzlingly impressive in its expression of original creative thought. Every piece within this collection of stories holds the potential to be unpacked into a novel, and the reader comes away with no doubt about the power and the breadth of the writer’s imagination.
These stories are unsettling and dense, deeply engaging, highly emotionally wrought and consistently impressive.
You Should Come With Me Now is by M. John Harrison and released by Mancunian publishing house (and part of the [increasingly significant] Northern Fiction Alliance), Comma Press. This collection, despite being almost faultlessly written and evidence of both an impressive imagination and a vast intellect, is definitely not for all tastes, and though it is almost impossible to find any literary fault within any specific story, I found myself almost dangerously fatigued by the end of the book. You Should Come With Me Now is excellent, but it’s exhausting. Have you ever visited that restaurant in Borough Market where every single dish contains cocoa or chocolate in some form? This is the literary equivalent of that: unique, intriguing, unarguably delicious on a plate by plate basis, but when it is all in one meal it slowly becomes too much.
In the book’s 260ish pages, there are LOTS of stories, about forty. These vary in length, with some only a few sentences, and none of the longest any more than around 20 pages. What Harrison repeatedly, deftly and effortlessly manages to do here is describe landscapes and societies with a few brisk sentences. There are deeply complex narratives and scenarios established, and there is rich detail in the subtle ways in which these numerous settings differ from our own “real” world. Layers of complexity are revealed over a short piece and characters’ emotional responses are always tied to the shifts in realities that Harrison has orchestrated. The reader meets doctors and administrative staff and other professionals, as well as people who have slipped out of society. The reader crosses boundaries both figurative and literal as Harrison introduces futures that have spun out of our own likely timeframe due to wars, due to alien invasions or due to dimensional shifts. These stories are unsettling and dense, deeply engaging, highly emotionally wrought and consistently impressive.
‘In Autotelia’ is a story near the beginning of the book, and details the experiences of a doctor travelling by train from London through ravaged wastelands to perform medical checks in a small colonial (or post-colonial?) outpost. What is described and what exists here is ambiguous and disorienting, but beautifully so. Harrison writes about the detached individuals who deny (or at least fail to embrace) how affected they have been by the extreme socio-geographic-political changes that have occurred, and gentle malice is evoked with crisp detail in lines such as “The room smells of cleaning materials and wax polish, as if it has to be cleaned thoroughly every early morning to remove the traces of the previous day’s business.” Harrison creates a corrupt bureaucracy with tentative and subtle detail: the reader sees only what the protagonist sees, witnesses only what the protagonist is there to do on that occasion. Choosing to enter this changed world from the perspective of someone who is familiar with it though an outsider, rather than through a protagonist who is as new to Autotelia as the reader, keeps the ambiguity of the fictional world forefront in the reader’s mind and is thus a significant and brave literary decision.
‘The Crisis’ is a similarly ambiguous piece about the colonisation of the City of London by indefinable alien creatures and the changed realities that surround them. Again, the protagonists are ignorant, again there are people who know more than the reader learns, but their knowledge is neither shared nor directly implied. It is, again, dark and dense and scary, these perhaps metaphorical manifestations of confused and unknown greed destroying reality. It is this unknowing, this crossing between realities (and, here, social classes) that characterises a lot of these stories. Harrison writes about travel and movement and he often writes of people, unknowing, who visit places that are — to them and to others — unknown. It is involving but perhaps repetitive.
‘Cicisbeo’, meanwhile, is about the decline of a marriage. In this story, the narrator is an old lover of the wife, a former friend of the husband, and she begs him to help her husband stop spending time in the attic, where it transpires he is digging a tunnel into the sky. Here, the obsessional behaviours that sour relationships are extended to extreme and fantastical levels, and Harrison offers a unique take on marital discord when the sad, repressed, husband finds a hobby that is destructive but — he feels — offers genuine and unique freedom. This potential freedom proves to be a fallacy, though, as his tunnel destroys the house and his obsession with it sends his wife back, on and off, to the arms of her ex. The reader is, again, positioned outside of the main relationship, an observer, an aside, and it is this frequent narratorial positioning on the edge that offers such a compelling voyeuristic thrill when reading many of Harrison’s stories. The collection is subtitled Stories of Ghosts, but I think a more accurate description would be that this is a book containing stories of people who think they have seen what they think might be ghosts. The reader is expected to question everything here, every narrator, every narrative turn, and this makes for an intense read.
These three stories represent only a tiny fraction of the narratives and allegories and realities established in You Should Come With Me Now, and it is this frequent complexity that makes all of these stories so individually powerful, but so overwhelming when read en masse. I am going to use, again, the phrase that summed up my experience of the book: it is excellent, but it is exhausting.
The reader is expected to question everything here, every narrator, every narrative turn, and this makes for an intense read.
However… Is this, perhaps, a miscommunication between how I think of a book and how this book is presented? For me, a book should be read is as few sittings as possible, ideally a single one. If short stories or a non-narrative poem, I expect them to weave together a sheet of ideas and ideals that ricochet off each other, forming a rich canvas that makes all seem stronger due to the way they are combined. With Harrison’s collection, however, each individual story contains such a complex wealth of imagery and characterisation in the pursuit of firm, literary, world-building, it becomes difficult to go from one to the next without expecting similarities to have meaning. For me, the problematic part of this collection was its intersecting complexity: locations — some of them fictionally named or described in specific detail — reoccur, but the ideas and the discoveries the reader has made do not seem to be required or expected to be transferred. I think it is the multiple use of the same fictional place, Autotelia, that problematises this most for me.
Though I am willing to read numerous pieces set in a place named “London” that share details but also diverge significantly from the London of my own experience, it is harder to accept different fictional renderings of the same fictionally-named place. Reflecting on this, it is perhaps a fault within my ability to suspend disbelief, but for me I think it is a significant and potentially not unique lack. Why is it harder to imagine two different fictional worlds that share a name than it is to imagine multiple different versions of a place with which I am intimately familiar? That, I suppose, is my conventional manner of reading a book: if I am given knowledge about something of which I know nothing, i.e. Autotelia, I expect that knowledge to be worth learning for later in the same book. This is not the case here.
All of the pieces in You Should Come With Me Now work well individually, but there’s no ebb and flow, no alterations in intensity and tone, so — for me — it doesn’t work as a book. Each story is so good that it made me want to read another, but at many stages in my reading I had to throw the book down due to near-physical pain: yes, these stories are consistently good, but they are consistently good in the same way. Just as chocolate for every course of a meal leaves one feeling bloated and overdone, there is too much richness here that the reader becomes full.
And this is the joy of the independent presses: this book exists, beautifully presented, ready to be read by whoever wants to read it. Are there lots of people who will love this book?
You Should Come With Me Now is glorious but it is not for binging. Well, not for binging for me. Maybe, to you, it sounds perfect. To some, I am sure that it will be an ideal read. And this is the joy of the independent presses: this book exists, beautifully presented, ready to be read by whoever wants to read it. Are there lots of people who will love this book? Probably not, but there are definitely some, and the fact that they are able to access this piece of impressive literature is something to be celebrated.
M. John Harrison, is an English author and literary critic. His work includes the Viriconium sequence of novels and short stories (1971–1984), Climbers (1989), and the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, which consists of Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012).
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and his debut poetry collection Bad Boy Poet is published this Summer by Open Pen. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Hadley or Instagram @scottandcubby