Friday, March 26, 2021

Worlds within, worlds beneath

Four seasons in one day
Lying in the depths of your imagination
Worlds above and worlds below
The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain

– Crowded House (Lyrics Tim Finn & Neil Finn)

In writing, much of my attention is turned to the craft and creation of fictional worlds. This is not simply a matter of science fiction or fantasy; every fiction instantiates and implies a rich collection of assumptions, designs, guesses, and diegetic facts that form the imagined world: the shadow of the text illuminated by the reader’s imagination.

Fictional worlds, their potential and danger, haunt two quite different recent works: M. John Harrison’s startling and unsettling The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again and Susanna Clarke’s lucid and compelling Piranasi. Each one considers, in quite different ways, the temptations and traps of the many worlds harbored in the imagination.

One knows, by now, what to expect of M. John Harrison. His technique is extraordinary; his worlds are indistinct, oblique, out of reach. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is set in England, but it is the profoundly alienated and drifting nation of the Brexit era. Beneath the surface lies the deep history of the land: geology, geography, the sediment of millennia of human occupation and industry, marked in the spiritual and material landscape. But the characters are detached from this, often both physically and emotionally isolated, in a post-industrial economy focused on gigs and temporary lodgings. One senses the movement to reconnect with the sunken lands, inherent in the fictional interest in the themes of spiritual renewal and transformation expressed in the sentimental Victorian tract The Water Babies. But the fixation on a lost sense of "English-ness" also evokes the toxic isolationism of Brexit. 

Harrison's technique focuses on exact, evocative description paired with inexact, oblique narrative. His work is often described as unsettling, and it is the way his precise, writerly skill with detail and landscape positions itself across an incomplete story that unsettles one’s sense of narrative and coherent action. Harrison’s characters, likewise, are drawn to the unspoken network of aspiration and conspiracy that informs the story but refuses to cohere.

Clarke's Piranesi is no less painstaking, but the narrative that begins as a mystery eventually becomes clear, as the protagonist's fractured memory is reconstructed, if not restored. Yet the fictional world, the structure inspired by the work of the historical Piranesi, in particular the astonishing Carceri d'invenzione or Imaginary Prisons series of prints, is the primary setting of the novel. The "World" of Piranesi — it is a proper noun, a character — is an archetypal labyrinth, a fictional construct, and a prison. The fantasy that begins as a dream of transcendence, an experiment in magic, becomes a trap, an exercise in manipulation and cruelty. What first appears as a consistent, even beautiful exercise in baroque classicism also has corrosive effects on the mind and memory. And although compassion and rescue are possible, it is only from outside the fictional world that we begin to understand its dangers as well as its potential.

There is a measure of peace and resolution at the end of Piranesi that The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again does not offer, but both works shape themselves around the potential and dangers of the other world, the imaginary, and the dangerous journey between the real and unreal, and what we may discover, recover and lose in the transition.

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