Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – Climbers by M. John Harrison

Book Review – Climbers by M. John Harrison

Let me try to explain why I think M. John Harrison’s “Climbers” is one of the greatest novels of the last twenty years. Harrison has had a strange career: from science fiction to mainstream and back again; and he transformed himself from a bad writer into an outstanding one. After writing some run of the mill science fiction and high fantasy (“The Centauri Device,” “The Pastel City,” and to a lesser extent “A Storm of Wings”), Harrison produced the best piece in his ‘Viriconium’ saga, a short novel called “In Viriconium.” After that, his next novel was “Climbers,” which I assert to be not only Harrison’s best novel but one of the best novels you or I are ever likely to read.

What’s it about? Rock climbing in the north of England in the early eighties. Am I interested in rock climbing? No. Does it matter? Not at all. Harrison’s genius is that he has found a way to compress mundane existence into an amazingly rich reading experience. The key word here is compression. There isn’t a loose sentence or paragraph in “Climbers”; it’s as taut and lean as a climber on a bare rock face. Somehow, Harrison manages to turn everyday life into something worth reading about. After reading “Climbers” for the fourth or perhaps fifth time, I’m still not entirely sure how he does it. And the results are extraordinary.

The prose in “Climbers” is exquisite. Harrison has a way of describing things in exact detail without getting bogged down in insignificance. The language is as precise and emotionless as a scalpel cutting through flesh. Harrison has a gift for describing environments and states of mind. We are introduced to a range of colourful characters, who enliven what might otherwise have been a sterile novel: Normal, the dithering ex-employee of High Adventure; Sankey, the aging climbing icon, eccentric and parsimonius; Gaz, the young butcher; Mick, the gloomy steeplejack, and each of them is memorable.

The novel’s narrator Mike (which is the author’s first name), is ‘recovering’ from a failed marriage, a flight which takes him to the north of England and the world of rock climbing. That’s about all you can say for the plot of “Climbers,” incidentally. If there is a narrative in the normal sense at all, then it is one that skips backward and forward in time repeatedly. I liken the effect to the process of remembering, with its alinear movement along lines of association, not chronology. In theory, the novel moves forward in time from ‘Winter,’ through ‘Spring,’ ‘Summer’ and ‘Fall’ (the last of which is rendered in American terminology for a specific reason), but in reality, we are moving backward and sideways in time as well. This is a book that demands careful reading.

There are shades of J.G. Ballard here, in the way that the novel’s narrator seeks to find the magic of the everyday, to somehow travel through reality. An important early passage serves to highlight this point:

“When I was a child I always felt as if I was on the verge of discovering something. I thought that if I was patient things would show more of themselves than other people could see. […] After that, appearances had for me a kind of perilous promise, an allure, an immanence.” (p 18 )

Hypnotised by the ghostly reflections in a window of people in a cafeteria, onto the backdrop of a rainy day, the eight year-old Mike walks straight into a plate glass window. And this is what “Climbers” is about: a failed attempt to travel through reality to somewhere more magical and more real.

Harrison uses an effective but sometimes startling technique I have decided to dub the ‘imaginative leap,’ in which the narrator’s imagination enters the secret worlds of other characters, such as when Sankey stops to speak to a young retarded boy. Harrison seems to be saying that existence is about the actual specific details that are in front of your face every moment of your life, precisely the things we normally tune out in pursuit of whatever we think we are doing or achieving. This results in some astonishingly specific passages that cannot be seen to be representative of anything other than themselves. And yet the author makes extensive use of metaphor in the course of his narrative.

As I’ve already said, nothing much happens in “Climbers,” and yet there’s never a dull moment. We get a handful of climbing stories (and a lot of climbing terminology to boot), as well as stories about the various characters Mike meets. Interspersed with this is a narrative about Mike’s earlier marriage to a woman called Pauline, whose two year-old daughter Nina lives with her grandmother. The material appears to have been arranged in chaotic, even bewildering fashion, and yet there’s an inner logic to everything here. As Mike says:

“How many times, coming back after a hard day like that, has there seemed to be something utterly significant in the curve of a cooling tower, or the way a field between two factories, reddened in the evening light, rises to meet the locks on a disused canal? Motorway bridges, smoke, spires, glow in the sun: it is a kind of psychic illumination.” (p 58-9)

The climax of “Climbers,” if there is one at all, is Sankey’s death from a fall on an easy climb. His mysterious death reminds me of nothing if not Paul Baumer’s demise at the end of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in that he dies alone from something seemingly innocuous. But this is an inscrutable book, and I can appreciate why some readers might not see the point of it at all. To demonstrate just how inscrutable this book can be, consider Nina’s accident. The child falls through a glass coffee table, and a shard of glass stabs her in the small of the back. This has already happened at some unspecified time in the past. Mike retells how he spent time at the hospital with Pauline and the child’s grandmother, and that Pauline insisted on not waiting for news of Nina’s condition at the hospital. When Mike confronts her about this, she rebuffs him. The next sentence says, “We went back to London by train a few days later.” (p. 90) The reader, already accustomed to the way this novel jumps around, puts the incident out of mind, only to read these words much later in the book:

“‘Nina was never that spoiled,’ she [Pauline] maintained, ‘though I daresay my mother would have liked her to be.’ She went on to describe a dream of her own – ‘I had this while Nina was still alive” – in which she had seen the little girl standing alone in a corner of an empty room, pulling faces at nothing.” (p 169)

Shortly after this, the narrative moves on to something else. So are we to assume that Nina died from her injuries? Surely this would merit a mention earlier? This infuriates me for some reason (possibly because I have a two year-old daughter myself), but it is symptomatic of how this novel works. Incidents are partially recalled, only to be interrupted be other events, and then picked up again later. Overall, I would say that this technique works extremely well.

There’s something very odd about Mike’s behaviour in “Climbers.” He is friendly and yet detached, observant but often preoccupied. It’s an eerie novel, actually, and one that partially eludes my understanding. But this is a truly brilliant novel, and Harrison is a brilliant writer, as writers such as China Mieville, Iain Banks, Clive Barker, Jonathan Carroll and Graham Joyce have observed. “Climbers” may not be Harrison’s most well-known novel, nor his most successful (the book was out of print until it was reissued in 2004), but I have read them all, and I say that it is his best.

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  1. November 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    These two sentences are probably the best characterization of MJH’s marvellous prose:
    “Harrison seems to be saying that existence is about the actual specific details that are in front of your face every moment of your life, precisely the things we normally tune out in pursuit of whatever we think we are doing or achieving.”
    – and yet
    “…a failed attempt to travel through reality to somewhere more magical and more real.”
    The body ID keeps the magic away.
    Thank you for this review. ‘Climbers’ are on the way to my library.

    • guysalvidge
      November 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I haven’t read this book for a couple of years now, but for some reason I think about it all the time. It’d have to be in the top twenty or so novels I’ve read, I’m sure.

  2. chris robinson
    September 12, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Yes, a book that stays within you for a long time. One of the best novels it’s been my plesure to read.

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