Viriconium is a tough read – you might want to immerse yourself slowly in the language M. John Harrison uses to describe his vision of Earth in a far-distant future, otherwise you may find yourself drowning: Big words and long descriptive passages are his stock in trade…
“In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminum and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses.”
As a writer, I found the language fascinating; as a reader I found the passages hard-going and I began to question why I was still reading this book, considering that I had struggled through only a quarter of it. Wouldn’t I get more satisfaction from riding my skateboard out in the sun? Perhaps even working on that song that I wrote the other night that doesn’t have any lyrics yet!
There had to be a reason I was wading through these verbose descriptions that culminated in dizziness and a weight-riddled head, as though my brain was trying to bust out of the skull in an attempt to escape. There had to be.
Flipping the book over, I read the quotes on the back cover: “Harrison is a blazing original …” (Clive Baker). I nodded my head – he was definitely different. “One of the best modern writers of fantasy. No, one of the best modern writers period” (Katharine Kerr). Harrison wasn’t convincing me of his brilliance. “No-one can use words like M. John Harrison. They trust him” (Michael Marshall Smith). Maybe my problem is that I don’t trust words, maybe that’s why this book is such a hard slog through tortuous word-thickets and albescent quicksands of paragraphs.
And yet I pick the book up again and push on.
It’s true, y’ know – I don’t trust words. Words cower when I demand their use, they go into hiding, they look for better writers than me to express their inner beauties.
Far too often,
On my own inadequacies.
So I rest for a while, have a break from reading. Midnight is closing in and I have words, many of them – mostly Harrison’s – swirling around my head like a thesaurus. But what to do with them? I pick up pen and paper and suddenly words come pouring out in short verse-like sentences that don’t make any apparent sense, but I don’t care because I am writing, and words spill forth with more enthusiasm than ever before, demanding that I write them down instead of going into hiding. Where once inspiration would peter out under the weight of criticism, here instead, I let go of all preconceptions and get more done.
I titled the piece ‘The Candle End of Time,’ but when I had the (brilliant) idea to attach it to the song without lyrics that I had written, it became ‘The Sign of the Locust’ – both are references to Viriconium, the book that taught me to trust words.
It is ironic that in preparing for this essay I read an article where Harrison states: “This is one of Viriconium’s many jigsawed messages to the reader. You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.”
Reading Viriconium was nothing short of experiencing vertigo!