Why M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the Goldsmiths Prize

M John Harrison’s masterpiece has inventiveness embedded in its very DNA.

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At first glance, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovation in fiction, doesn’t look as though it is doing anything out of the ordinary. It is not, like last year’s winner (Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport), the extension of a single sentence over a thousand pages; or, like Anakana Schofield’s Bina, written as a series of warnings on the back of envelopes. Nor does it, like DBC Pierre’s Meanwhile in Dopamine City (shortlisted for this year’s prize alongside Bina), split the page into dual narrative threads; and there are no Oulipian constraints for the author to contend with, such as missing out the letter “o”, as in Alice Lyons’s Oona.

But M John Harrison’s masterpiece, composed of regular chapters in which regular sentences form regular paragraphs, is precisely about not noticing when things are out of the ordinary. Framed as a conventional narrative, it contains nothing conventional whatsoever. The novel’s inventiveness is embedded in its very DNA, and the resurfacing of a primeval genetic coding also happens to be its subject.

The Sunken Land is, among many other things, a psychogeographical love story that never gets moving because the lovers have no idea where to go. Shaw, recovering from a breakdown, is disconnected from his south-west London community, while Victoria is keen to make new friends. “You seem like a decent man,” Victoria explains to Shaw, “but you’ve forgotten what everything’s about.” If he has indeed forgotten, Shaw wonders, then how would he know?

Shaw and Victoria sleepwalk through a world that is being taken over by a movement of people who carry copies of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and disappear into shallow ponds. Fish are everywhere in this shimmeringly slippery book, and everything is fishy: it’s fishy, for example, that nobody knows what anyone’s name is and that some men spend a lot of time with their arms down toilet bowls. It’s fishy that Shaw doesn’t know what his job involves and Victoria doesn’t know how her mother died. It’s fishy that Tim, whom Shaw first encounters in a graveyard where he is dipping a Victorian medicine bottle into an inch of muddy water, appears to live in the room next door to him; and that Tim sends Shaw to weekly seances with a comatose medium who is apparently both Tim’s sister and his lover. And it’s fishy that the map over Tim’s desk has been coloured so that the continents look like seas and the seas look like continents.

The Sunken Land is absurdist, bleak, moving and, in the purest sense, unheimlich. A political prophecy set in a Brexit Britain of estranging mundanity, it operates like a dream we have had before but keep forgetting. The luminous sentences appear sometimes to hover above the page before crossing some sort of fault line where they fall and then rise again. Other experimental novels unstitch language, character and form, but Harrison unstitches the reader herself.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump

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