Weird #60: “Egnaro” by M. John Harrison (1981)

M. John Harrison was part of the New Wave, a literary movement that, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, introduced Mainstream fiction techniques into the “straightjacket” of mass produced science fiction. The literary values of the movement, which increasingly drew from the soft sciences rather than hard sciences, can be identified with the kind of stories coming out of Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine.

Members of the New Wave movement include J. G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Silverberg.

“Egnaro” is emblematic of this movement. The central setting is a bookshop that stacks pulpy science fiction novels that get confiscated by police who do not distinguish it from the pornography stock. The central character, a bookseller named Lucas whose dreams of a far-off land are wrecked by the ennui of modern life, keeps pre-War copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt on the shelves.

These pulpy copies evoke a certain nostalgia for science fiction novels of discovery, back when it was possible to imagine unknown, magical islands might yet exist on earth. The narrator describes them, however, as books “unwittingly comic in their portrayal of albino gorillas and wide-eyed, frightened women; the tales themselves fragmentary, motiveless and unreal.”

Harrison’s depiction of Lucas’s collection of pulps may reflect the New Wave’s mix of contempt and nostalgia for science fiction’s past.

Though “Egnaro” is not science fiction, the New Wave’s disposition to Mainstream fiction narrative style can be seen in this update to the weird tale. “Orange” spelled backward, “Egnaro” can be read two ways: one in which Egnaro exists, the other in which it is a self-delusion.

Egnaro is the archetype of all mysterious, otherworldly lands such as those described by Merritt and Burroughs. It is hinted at in the ordinary things in this world, glimpsed and heard of briefly but never for long. It is like the pining of the soul for a more sublime country than our world of rent boards and insurance premiums.

In a passage reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (translated in 1972 into English), Harrison describes Egnaro as a city you first learn about “in conversations not your own […]. Egnaro reveals itself in minutiae, in that great and very real part of our lives when we are doing nothing important.” It is an inner landscape expressed as a premonition of a geographical one.

Expressed through a different allusion, Egnaro is Borges’s al-Mu’tasim expressed as a place instead of a man, a benevolent “veiled one” perceived through hints in manifest phenomena; Egnaro is “a secret country, a place behind the places we know.” There is indeed something occluded and occult behind this land. As Lucas explains, “All myths are perversions of [Egnaro’s] history; it is the secret behind the apparent history of the world.”

Emphasizing Egnaro’s connection to the occult, Lucas attempts to explain it to businessmen by handing them a copy of The Castles of the Kings, a New Age work (made up for the purpose of the story) filled with a vague allusions designed to trigger confirmation bias in the same vein as Chariots of the Gods?.

Lucas’s madness leads him to hit rock bottom. After he loses his bookshop to his creditors and police harassment, he vanishes for a time before returning from America as a businessman who wants nothing to do with books and dreams.

It is the narrator who then ends up falling under the spell of Egnaro in turn, experiencing the world as Lucas used to see it. The narrator keeps a notebook writing notes, whenever he hears allusions to Egnaro in overheard conversations: “The television advertisements are full of clues. One shows a tiger running in slow motion across a heartbreaking landscape of sand dunes; another, for banking services, a horse splashing through shallows. I record them all.” Every allusion to pastoral nostalgia or vacation travel that gives him #FOMO (fear of missing out) he interprets as a whisper of that frustrated desire, that imagined geography, Egnaro.

The last sentence of the story summarizes the irony of Egnaro’s significance: “If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery.” It is the disappointment, the dull, the quotidian just as much as the intrigue of life.

Seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy as Tolkien describes it in “On Fairy Stories.” Just as Mooreeffoc simply means “Coffeeroom” in a mirror, Egnaro is as extraordinary–and as quotidian–as an orange.

Next week, I will read Joanna Russ’s “The Little Dirty Girl” (1982).

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