This text was originally published in Two Essays to accompany the exhibition Teo and Kai, The Rond at Luna Elaine (2018).
“He had for a moment (it was a moment only) a sense of two cities.”
A Storm of Wings, M. John Harrison
There is a disconnect in continuity across the Mad Max films. I had forgotten this, and last year, re-watching the franchise in quick succession the uncanny differences in the environments and landscapes as the films progress caught my imagination. In Mad Max (the first film - 1979), Max Rockatansky is a cop who still has a precinct to go to. In this world, not yet gone over the edge of apocalypse, there are trees and bushes and, at least at the beginning of the film, he lives with his wife in a house on a hill above the city. In Fury Road (2015), Max is a similar age, there is only blood red desert, a vast wasteland that is populated by gross post-apocalyptic settlements. He is a different Max and yet he is the same Max.
Rafael Hernán Gamboa puts it succinctly: ‘Like all oral traditions the details never line up. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was old, sometimes he had a son, sometimes a daughter. No matter how many times his Interceptor is destroyed, somehow it keeps coming back.’
Each time that there are these breaks or shifts in Max’s world and in Max, the shifts are taken for granted as a part of the background texture of the films. When small logics of continuity are broken it is usually a glaring error in cinema. In Mad Max however, because the films are so saturated with mythic symbology, the breaks in continuity only add to the sense of epic narrative, guiding us to the deeper truth behind these tales. That these films are, as director George Miller has said in interviews, ‘campfire tales,’ is made explicitly clear at the beginning of the second film, as the unknown narrator opens: ‘My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos... ruined dreams... this wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called "Max.”’
With Fury Road, a thirty year gap after the first three films, Max is recast as Tom Hardy. This Max is more beaten down and wild than ever before. He doesn’t just look different, he is a different Max, and yet we have no doubt it is also the same Max from the previous films. It reminds me of speaking to a friend in a dream who has the appearance of somebody else, and yet we know they are our friend. Max Rockatansky transcends both Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy because he is the archetypal Road Warrior.
The Viriconium books by M. John Harrison also hinge on shifts in continuity. To gloss four novels is impossible and problematic. Nevertheless; The Pastel City (the first of the Viroconium books) is constructed from familiar tropes of fantastical fiction. It is post apocalyptic, but much further into the future than Mad Max, so much so that vast cultures have risen and fallen many times over. The technology of the current culture, that of Viroconium and surrounding lands, has been dug from the great rusty deserts, artifacts of a distant past. The story concerns a Knight - Lord tegeus-Cromis, two warring Queens, an iron dwarf, and a perhaps immortal birdmaker. Already there are hints of something more difficult and nuanced than a more prosaic fantasy novel. The heroism of the protagonists, instead of being glorious, is gritty, accidental, and weighted emotionally. John Coulthart expresses it neatly: ‘the early books critique the lazy assumptions of the fantasy genre.’ As well as this, there are also already faint allusions to our own reality: the reborn men - strange ancestors reawoken - utter singular sentences, without context, about Venice or Blackpool.
The style of the prose shifts dramatically in the second book - A Storm of Wings; there is markedly less dialogue and the descriptions are densely poetic. Although familiar characters recur, 80 years have past: Lord tegeus-Cromis is dead, and the iron dwarf an old man. Viroconium is under threat from an accidental invasion of alien winged creatures. The insect-like aliens are ensheathed in their own metaphysical assumptions, (they have flown for millenia through space), but as they meet Viroconium, the underpinnings of both realities buckle as the two worlds collide. The insects change the world but they are also changed by it. Small chunks of text empathetically express this experience for the alien colonists, as simultaneously the protagonists stagger on the edge of madness attempting to deal with this threat.
It is In Viroconium (the third book) where for me Viroconium truly becomes all cities. The prose no longer baroque, the storytelling is quick and sharp. Now dizzy with the echoes and cadences of the previous books, the city is even more unmappable, characters recur but they are like misremembered dreams, the timeline is difficult.
The fourth book - Viriconium Nights - is not a novel but a collection of short stories. M. John Harrison has said that the Viroconium books can be read in any order but that the final short story - A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium - must always come last. For this story we are in our world - York, Huddersfield, London - but there are bridges to Viroconium: through the reflections of an old man Mr Ambrayses (the narrator's friend and neighbour) but also materially, through a mirror, or a tree that is both there and here.
And it provides us with a metaphor for these bridges (In the story it is Mr Ambrayses’ answer to the perennial question: ‘where do all these flies come from!’): ‘As Viroconium grinds past us, dragging it’s enormous bulk against the bulk of the world, the energy generated is expressed in the form of these insects which are like the sparks shooting out from between two huge flywheels that have momentarily brushed each other.’
John Coulthart comments that, ‘the later books recast the earlier stories as myths or half-remembered dreams.’ The progression of the Viroconium books is unlike anything I know. They are novels that take as their subject matter a deeply questioning, varied, and humorous, investigation into the nature of reality. The stories undercut themselves and this discontinuity somehow harks at a deeper truth.
As I think of the strange arc of the series, I am amazed that M. John Harrison is not restricted by the parameters he has set himself in the first work, or in the second or third, but instead constantly reinventing and undercutting, searching for something deeper and more meaningful.
Dressing up Bars
Like one of the short stories in Viroconium Nights, Teo and Kai, The Rond provides an askance glimpse into the world of the Dressing up Bars. Emily, the constant protagonist necessarily in every scene of my novel, is not present. The language of sculpture provides a very different route of access than text might to the fragmented reality that Emily traverses. In both my writing and sculpture I hope, like Mad Max and Viriconium, not to be overly concerned with solidity, to create strange things that are multifaceted and unreal in their entirety, but also intricate in their details.
Emily finds herself by turns either a key part of the youth cult the Dressing up Bars (embedded in the wider culture of the Hemmed City), or on the spaceship-like L’enfant, or a part of other more fleeting landscapes. Wherever she is the immersion is complete, and any memory of other environments non existent. And yet between these worlds there is some resonance or overlap, for example in the Hemmed City the character Josh Peesh is a studdish male in his early twenties, whereas onboard L’enfant he is an eight year old boy that Emily and the crew find hiding in a cupboard.
None of the locales in Dressing up Bars are materially existent places in their own right. Crucially they are experienced only through the lens of Emily, (or we can presume, in the experience of the other characters in the environments that Emily migrates through). The emphasis is not on mapping an exhaustive world but highlighting transitory, alive, corners of experience that may or may not link together.
Teo and Kai, the Rond is another one of these transitory, alive, loci of experience that form the flesh of Emily’s journey. It is a scribble or doodle that I have made as I find my way in the peculiar challenge of making up characters and seeing how they interact.