Lucas is a shady, evasive bookshop owner running a tatty second-hand book store on the rundown streets of Deansgate. He begins to overhear fragments, enigmatic gnomic references to the wonders of a fantastical land at the edges of the known world called Egnaro. This leads to an obsession with Egnaro, as his health, his business and his livelihood suffer.
Lucas deals in collectable, original editions of fantasy paperbacks. The narrator, Lucas’ straight-laced accountant, sees Lucas’s fantasy collection and his personal longing for Egnaro as the same thing – simple escapism, and tells him to focus on the world around him, “perhaps the housing estates are the real undiscovered countries.”
The pragmatic narrator has no time for Lucas’ fantasies, viewing his fantasy books as feeding a longing for the past, the simplicity of childhood, when desires were more easily consummated. Fantasy as merely adolescent desire.
But Lucas’ obsession with Egnaro grows and he becomes frustrated with the conspiracy he perceives to obfuscate its existence. For him the idea of Egnaro begins to assert itself over reality. Lucas rages against life. His fantasy is superior to grey mundanity of the modern world.
The setting of Deansgate is vividly realised in its rundown, dishevelled state of urban neglect. A transient urban space without anchors. A geography without a culture where only office workers and students pass through the rundown streets on the way to somewhere else. The bitter winter winds blowing through the drab streets sharply contrast with the warm sun-soaked landscapes of Egnaro. Deansgate is a society without a soul. Why wouldn’t you chose the fantasy when reality is this bleak?
So fantasy is a consolation to the quotidian mundanity of life. But it is more than merely escapism. Egnaro is many things, a fantastic realm at the edges of reality, the conspiracy to keep its location hidden, a longing for childhood simplicity, a desire for what is lost. Desire itself. Also and maybe the most obvious, it is orange spelt backwards. Even in the title, Harrison undercuts the romantic with the banal.
M. John Harrison’s prose is elegant and precise. He has a focus on the minutiae of reality, superbly detailing subtle feelings, atmospheres, the play of light. He builds up an intimate portrait of reality, without a trace of romanticism. A realist at war with romanticism, whilst still being fascinated by its effects.