The Course of the Heart

A tale about the allure of a fantastic world that can be breached with obscure magical ritual – the obsession with which destroys the characters' lives. This ostensibly moves beyond M. John Harrison's early deconstructions of the fantasy genre, but given how phantasms invade and wreck the seemingly ordinary lives of the characters in the novel, I feel like it's of a piece with Harrison's ability to take genre elements and make them dangerous and unsettling again. For example, although the corrupt (and corrupting) magician Yaxley seems to be modelled on Aleister Crowley, he reminds me just as much of the decadent wizards in Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, who offer quests and magnificent rewards but can never be trusted by the roguish heroes. This book is like the inverse of the author's Viriconium series, which gradually brought its fantasy world into a closer relationship with our own. Here the fantasy genre lurks in the shadows of what appears to be a standard work of 'literary' fiction.

Unlike most fantasy authors, M. John Harrison is happy to leave the structure of his overlapping universes vague and unexplained. Moreover, if the genre as a whole operates by using metaphor to convey meaning, Harrison's metaphors are notably enigmatic. The three characters who performed the magical ritual as students are all haunted by monsters that reflect their particular psychosexual hang-ups – Pam's lovers perhaps reveal a lack of romantic fulfilment, Lucas Medlar's dwarf/child a guilt and self-disgust that spills over into masochism. The unnamed narrator's glimpses of a (more benign) green goddess is in the opening of the book associated with his mother, and perhaps reflects a tendency to revere but misunderstand women.

The book is ultimately a love story where the love affair is skillfully obscured until the final pages. It's a superb reveal, and subtly recontextualises everything that has come before it. The book can be criticised for fridging the two female characters, although rather than providing a motivation for the male characters, their deaths totally unravel their lives. An undercurrent of the book is that the fixation with a more perfect magical world arises and is a substitute for a lack of solid connections with this one. It's a grim verdict for a fantasy author to reach. 

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