Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is one of those novels that, throughout the experience the reader is aware everything is set in reality, just not quite. There is a skew, an angle, a perspective to the events which does not wholly belie the reality you’ve come to know. But at the same time, there is nothing to put your finger on to say definitively ‘that is not reality’. I suppose there are some who would call this ‘slipstream fiction’, but regardless the nomenclature, it creates a wonderfully uncomfortable view to the proceedings that begs to be unraveled. I can’t help but feel precisely the same about M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020).
In the early going, The Sunken Land has the atmosphere of a stereotype: one of “those French novels” where people have trouble with relationships while grappling with the idea of existence (never in so direct terms, natch). Indeed Shaw and Victoria, and their obtuse interactions and dialogue, spawn a certain feeling that something is amiss in their relationship and world, even if they do not know what it is, the quotidian events of their daily lives taking on additional layers in the process. But as the story moves forward, certain patterns begin to emerge. At separate, individual times, strange coincidences occur that are just far enough over the line that the tire of reality is pricked by a pin. As the escaping air builds into the crescendo of a hiss, the reader comes to learn that not all is existentially French. Broader, Lovecraftian-esque (not Lovecraftian) events are shifting and moving beneath the waves that speak to Harrison’s true substance to the novel.
M. John Harrison has quietly written one of the most diverse yet quality oeuvres in modern literature. Seeming to constantly defy writing stories that can easily be classified as this or that, The Sunken Land almost feels Harrison’s most Harrison-esque book to date for it: it simply can’t be pigeonholed. As hinted in the intro, Victoria and Shaw’s story feels 100% mimetic, yet clearly it’s not. Like shifting glaciers, certain things loosen and move in ways that are clearly of import to the larger sense of the story’s reality, yet in ways the reader can’t clearly identify. And indeed, the characters clearly feel to have undergone some subtle transformation by the conclusion, a transformation the reader is left nicely to ponder the implications of as the final page turns.
In the end, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a book that will likely be popular with critics given the quality, angular prose and poetic import, but perhaps not fare as well on the open market given the lack of overt conflict or easily ascribed plot. Harrison a sophisticated writer who does not openly wave any flags of affiliation or present overt morals of meaning in the novel, instead the reader is given room to weigh and balance, to observe and scrutinize the circumstances of two seemingly ordinary people as things subtly shift and change around them (though I suppose the better phrase would have been “under them” given the book’s title). This shift and change happening where the novel’s flavor lies, the fact it is likewise ambiguous and mysterious only adds to the enjoyment. Certainly one of the best novels published in 2020.