If you were a climber and were expecting this to be some kind of literary version of The Eiger Sanction, then you’d probably be disappointed. But then, I don’t think M. John Harrison would care too much, given that many of the readers of this book were probably expecting it to be a sci-fi masterpiece, rather than some kind of Mike Leigh nightmare.
Out of print until recently (it was reissued in 2004) this 1989 novel is less about climbing and its community and more about growth – or the lack of it. There’s a couple of technical terms, but they’re used more as a kind of polari – a code for the band of climbers, where they’re able to hide from real life. Non-climbing readers won’t find anything to frighten them in the argot – but the behaviour of the characters is another matter.
Apparently semi-autobiographical, the novel is a catalogue of weaknesses and fears, laid beside the fleeting joy of a successful climb. Death is ever-present, and life is almost worthless. It flicks back and forth, memory worrying prior events, which would be irritating if the world within wasn’t so grimily evocative.
I can’t exactly say why I liked the novel. It’s oblique, and not easily pinned down. Its characters are transitory, and seem to take delight in their unlikeable natures. The weather’s shit, and humans have ruined the landscape – in actuality, as opposed to the far-flung future normally Harrison’s stock-in-trade. But there’s something of the Smiths, of the “it’s grim up north” mentality at work here that’s irresistible. It’s a portrait of the North as forceful as any you’ll find.
This book places me more firmly in England than pretty much anything else I’ve read. There’s a level of frustration, of decay, of endless waiting around which seems so much a part of my memory of the place.