As more people find out what UK author Steve Aylett is all about, loyal cult following may yet explode into full-fledged Aylett-mania. A growing number of esteemed writers are praising Aylett as their “drug of choice” for originality and word-skill, including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Ramsey Campbell, and Michael Moorcock.
Alan Moore calls Aylett “the most original and most consciousness-altering living writer in the English language, not to mention one of the funniest.”
Michael Moorcock has written, “Aylett has a cold, accurate eye, a mocking wit and a black, playful angle of attack which has learned something from cyberpunk but has that smack of idiosyncrasy, that sense of exploring new territories, that laconic, confident humor which tells you this is exactly the book you’ve been waiting for.”
The first Aylett book I read was the zany mockumentary, Lint, which Neil Gaiman described as “astonishingly funny.” I agree with Mr. Gaiman. Lint purports to be the biography of a writer named Jeff Lint, whose career began in the golden age of pulp science fiction, when “dozens of new magazines appeared with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling, Useless, Appalling, Made-Up, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups,” and editors would order up “an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman” for the cover of a typical issue. One of the many books in Jeff Lint’s bibliography is “Watch the Endless Shipwreck, in which salt-stained sea zombies converge on a town in search of an affordable tailor.”
Aylett appropriates all the tropes shared by most tell-all biographies of writers, artists, and musicians (eccentric behavior, alcohol and/or drugs, stormy relationships, rivalries, innovations) and takes them to farcical extremes. Comedian Stewart Lee tells a story on one of his podcasts about nearly wrecking his car because he was laughing so hard while his passenger read Lint aloud.
In 1944, according to the faux biography, Lint made several visits Jack Kerouac’s 115th Street apartment, where William Burroughs was also staying. “Seeing the number of Benzedrine inhalers the group was getting through, Lint asked an eminent flu specialist to call at the apartment. When the doctor showed up, the door opened onto a scene combining shock-haired mania with virtuoso lethargy.”
On the Kennedy assassination, “Lint claimed to fully support the Warren Commission’s theory that, though shot from behind, Kennedy threw himself violently backward out of ‘sheer cussedness.’”
One chapter is dedicated to Lint’s foray into experimental music, including a nod to the infamous hazing of hired musicians by Captain Beefheart in the 1960s. The various band members describe “Damage Night,” when the band was sound asleep at 4:00 AM, “Lint entered in a blast of light, dressed as the Devil and screaming something about blood.” One musician says, “He had a portable klieg light behind him and a photographer’s lamp in his hand, uplifting his face so the shadows were tearing around all over the joint.” Another one adds, “His mouth opened way further than it should, like a black bag, and the screaming of several women came out of it.” No one can agree on Lint’s appearance on Damage Night. “His mouth was pursed as small as an eyelid. But his body was rolling like a huge ball,” or “Limbs like little construction cranes with white gloves on the end, all dripping soup,” or “I saw W. C. Fields come in and say we were all done for.”
Now, as offbeat as it is, Lint actually represents the most “normal” Aylett book in terms of writing style, and many a reader has used Lint as a launching pad into his more unconventional achievements.
If you aren’t familiar with Aylett, please allow me to introduce him as, for lack of a better description, a brilliant slipstream satirist. Slipstream, a term coined by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, is as a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. But you don’t have to be a slipstream fan to enjoy Aylett’s books. He cites an array of influences, from Kafka to David Lynch, Voltaire to Laurel and Hardy.
Aylett himself says that if people must put his work in a genre, he would prefer the satire category. He frequently cites Voltaire as a major influence, adding that he read Candide (1759) after receiving it as a gift from his father and it is one of his favorite books. When interviewed by Justin Taylor for Bookslut, Aylett said:
I like taking arguments or sound bites and taking them apart, or accelerating them to see where they lead. Satire takes an argument, exposes it to reality and feeds it back to the person who stated it. If it’s got integrity they shouldn’t be afraid of taking it in again. But if the argument is flawed, the satirical version will open out inside them like a complicated bomb and wreak a bit of havoc. This assumes that the person reading has an atom of honesty to appeal to, and that they’re not so infected with postmodern evasion strategies.
Aylett was interviewed for the SF Site in 2007 by Jeff VanderMeer, author of New York Times best-seller Annihilation (watch for the Paramount motion picture in 2017). Asked about his lack of recognition in the mainstream press, Aylett told VanderMeer, “I’ve realized only very recently (that I was expected to write more like other people) when (publisher) Orion paid me a lot to write the Accomplice quartet. But it was one of those ‘unspoken’ understandings, so I didn’t know anything about it. Consequently, I happily wrote four of the strangest books ever written, and that was the end of my big-money career.” This may be changing, if not by corporate advertising, then by word of mouth.
When I tell my friends about Steve Aylett, I often use comparisons to more familiar things, but comparisons never tell the full story. For example, when Police Chief Blince makes an appearance in one of Aylett’s Beerlight books, I picture him as Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons. But Aylett didn’t crib from The Simpsons. Henry Blince and Clancy Wiggum both have antecedents. In an interview for Crime Time, Aylett told Barry Forshaw that he based Chief Blince on the overweight, candy-bar-munching crooked cop portrayed by Orson Welles in the 1958 film noir, Touch of Evil. The Simpsons’ Chief Wiggum, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has “notably pig-like” characteristics, “an obvious joke by the animators” relating to a derogatory phrase for cops, and actor Hank Azaria based Wiggum’s voice on Edward G. Robinson, best remembered for his many gangster movies. The point is, I give these comparisons to familiarize my friends with Aylett’s style.
I usually recommend Lint as a starting place, and I heartily recommend that you don’t stop there. Don’t let Aylett’s more unusual books throw you off. For one thing, they aren’t very long. For another thing, they are sparklingly original and entertaining, almost psychedelic in imagery and style. People often forget that someone taught them much of the literary knowledge they now take for granted. Years ago, a tenth grade English teacher explained that Ray Bradbury’s “thimble seashells” in Fahrenheit 451 (1953) were ear pieces for listening to the radio, and that the fire truck was called a “salamander” because of an old superstition that salamanders could live in fire. These many years later, it is easy for me to assume that I knew those things from the beginning. As for style, it generally takes a few pages to acclimate myself to certain eighteenth and nineteenth-century authors if I haven’t read them in a while. Why should a new book necessarily be different? I remember struggling through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) when I was 12 years old. A few years later, when I read it again, a combination lock clicked open in my brain. So, in a way, getting familiar with Steve Aylett’s style was like being a kid again. It would not surprise me to learn that endorphins are involved. I’m told that even the act of smiling releases endorphins in the brain, and I certainly find myself smiling repeatedly while reading Aylett.
I can’t get enough of his use of “lists” for humorous effect. These are not numbered lists; they appear in paragraph form, flowing non-stop as though from a wellspring, cataloguing an increasingly more absurd series of objects or concepts. In his short story “Maryland,” for example, a clergyman claims to see the shape of the Madonna in a pool of blood under the body of a murder victim. When a fight breaks out over the body, the blood puddle is disturbed and altered repeatedly, so as to resemble, in turn, “a monster truck, a flight bag, pond dice, inflatable hammers, a pig in a tire swing, an inarticulate outcast, a wily sheriff containing the answers, a map of Denmark, a camel, a weasel, a whale” (Toxicology).
Some of the items in an Aylett list are specific references, while others are included either for their comedic effect or to paint impressionistic pictures. Readers need not recognize every reference to appreciate the prose. The non-sequiturs, hyperbole, unexpected juxtapositions, and sheer randomness are enjoyable enough in their own right. Karloff Velocet arrives in Accomplice and, with great fanfare, begins to introduce the acts and performers in his Circus of the Heart’s Shell, proclaiming in The Complete Accomplice: “I bring you the disadvantages of bloody mayhem! Parlour tricks which have escaped my control! Shabby secrets ejected and at large! Ballerinas to shock and appall you! Scalped clowns dipped in dove paint . . . Barbaric skull percussionists and bandaged fire bugs . . . freaks, tumblers, crumblers, and flamers . . . Big Bumperton the Hornblower! Jeffrey Jamar – answerable to no-one! Nick Genie, speechless with drink! The Fatal Rhino! The Operating Theater of Flowers! The Tunnel of Hounds! The Cordial Perilous! The Hall of Mirrors – all flat and normal, for you are grotesque enough! And it’s all nice and legal! Bring your gilly children and hear them scream as though snagged in a combine!” I could go on.
The next Aylett book I read after Lint was Karloff’s Circus, not realizing it was Part 4 of the Accomplice series. Having noted references to cyberpunk in a couple of Aylett book reviews, I latched on to a passage in which the demon Sweeney tears himself away from his throne. Aylett writes, “Sinews stretched, gas exploding from fluke-holes.” I told myself that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, there are people connected by tubes to machines, kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett uses surrealism to parody reality or if he writes a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe. But what was I to make of the assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders? The Steinway spiders immediately brought the works of Salvador Dali to mind. Ominous clowns have become a staple of weird fiction. Karloff Velocet’s train enters the town by bursting out of someone’s mouth. Ultimately, then, the Accomplice series transcends metaphor and erupts into full-bloom metaphysical fantasy.
The cyberpunk genre is probably best embodied in the pseudo-noir-hard-boiled-detective Beerlight novels and short stories, where many sentences offer multiple interpretations. Characters often light up and smoke “shock absorbers.” Obviously, this could be a slang term for cigarette, like stogie, coffin nail, or square. Furthermore, a smoker might say cigarettes help them relax, or “take the edge off”—thus they are “shock absorbers.” Taking it a step further (because a shock absorber is a large and bulky cylindrical apparatus), maybe it’s a metaphor for an exceptionally large cigarette, cigar, or spliff. Characters speak of smoking torpedoes, bombers, and trees. Why not a shock absorber? Then we have a third interpretation, which is a surreal cartoon-like image of characters puffing on actual shock absorbers. Strange as that may sound, Aylett’s Beerlight books give us enough other bizarre scenarios (e.g., guns with metaphysical ammunition and a talking piranha named Jed Helms) to spring our psychic floodgates open for anything. This all takes longer to write than it does to think about. One learns to roll with it. Sometimes I go for two or three pages before stopping to appreciate an especially obscure passage, but that’s part of the fun.
Steve once told me, “Two different people can read my books and seem to have read different books.” Maybe no single interpretation is correct; this is fiction, after all. Jacques Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Steve Aylett gives us an abundance of raw materials to process.