Interview With Steve Aylett

AylettFlash-386x283

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, May 26, 2006

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett’s work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: “The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV.”

Steve Aylett’s new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age 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.

Lint Cover Snowbooks     Slaughtermatic book cover

I like to call Aylett’s work a combination of science fiction, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It’s like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff’s Circus (book 4 of The Complete Accomplice) lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. “Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups,” he tells us, or “Pause any country and you’ll spot subliminal torture in the frame.”

Jacque 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. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett’s prose so much — he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Bill Ectric: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can “pick up” on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some’s almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there’s the running gags or repetitions like the “Snail, Sarge” conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don’t like all that there’s always the story to fall back on.

BE: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone’s mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

SA: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I’ll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn’t manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it’s the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment’s scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn’t really mean anything. It’s all just people.

BE: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the “Fall Marshall” is this a reference to the idea of the “fall of man?”

SA: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall’s album The Marshall Suite — and he is marshaling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Aylett Karloff
Click here for more Accomplice trading cards

 

BE: Which is better — for countries to worry continuously about other countries’ ability to build nuclear bombs, or the “stalemate effect” of each country already having nuclear bombs?

SA: As long as America has the ‘preemptive’ policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it’s probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn’t like an even fight) — but in any case there will be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It’s inevitable.

BE: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

SA: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

BE: Now I’m sort of freaked out because I’m not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie lived until 1996 … are you serious?

SA: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance. Unfortunately, it was crap. I think I’d got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a ‘name’ of some kind, and I didn’t know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane — temporarily.

Victims of the Aylett  CurseVictims of the Aylett Curse: The Krays, William S. Burroughs, and Stephen Fry

BE: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

SA: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics — that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

The Caterer comic book    The Complete Accomplice book cover

BE: Near the end of Karloff’s Circus we read, “On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings.”
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

SA: No, the book doesn’t occur in Mike Abblatia’s mind/dreams or whatever — it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

BE: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, even though they aren’t all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

SA: Yes, I’ve read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

BE: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

SA: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

A Plane World by Charles H Hinton    Heart

BE: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man — Patrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

SA: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I’d go for him.

BE: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of “isn’t it” all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, “Well, Lint is American, isn’t he?”

SA: English people say isn’t, aint, aren’t, innit, wot, and other things.

End of Interview       Return to Interview Selection

Returns to Bill Ectric’s Home Page

 

 

 

Advertisements

Souls on Paper: Nikolai Gogol on Bogus Financial Schemes

Some images in the above collage were taken from The Overcoat & Selected Stories, Special Edition, published by Special Edition Books, and Dead Souls, the Yale Edition

 

Gogol’s Dead Souls is a perfect analogy for today’s economy. Instead of buying junk bonds, the main character in Dead Souls purchases the names of peasants who have died but are still on the census rolls. In Russia, prior to 1861, serfs could be bought or sold by land owners. The government taxed the landowners for each soul they possessed, based on the most recent census, which was usually outdated, so landowners often paid taxes on “dead souls.” A charismatic fellow named Chichikov comes to town,  flattering and charming everyone, appealing to their vanity, and makes his rounds to the homes of several landowners, offering to purchase lists of deceased serfs, to have the names legally transferred into his ownership. Some of the people he approaches are skeptical at first, but most of them recognize a chance to rid themselves of a tax burden and agree to Chichikov’s proposition. His goal is to make himself appear wealthy on paper, raise his social standing, establish credit, maybe even marry into a wealthy family, and ultimately, to sell all these paper souls back to the unsuspecting government for real money. This is basically what many mortgage companies were doing in the years leading up to our  housing and economic crisis: Selling bundles of high-risk  mortgages to banks as if they were solid and safe. Gogol’s gift for caricature, satire, and amusing turns of phrase make Dead Souls an absolutely hilarious book from beginning to end.

I was going to write more, but I’ve discovered a great essay on Gogol by Darran Anderson, over at Literary Kicks, which begins:

We live in a Gogol world. He may have died 150 years ago but his world is our world, a world of absurdities haunted by ghosts and government clerks, where people are victimized by committees and asylums, where rational insanities and irrational truths determine the course of lives. His writing remains modern not only because he avoids the archaic language that makes other writing of the era virtually unreadable, but because he deals in universal truths. Reading Gogol, we recognize characters, places and situations to the extent that the only difference between the streets we walk on our way to work and the frozen cobbled gas-lit streets of his St. Petersburg are aesthetics. We can stare out from the windows of our offices, our shops and our call centers and feel exactly what Gogol and his characters felt during the intolerable, endless office hours staring out onto the Neva River.

Read complete essay by Darran Anderson at LitKicks

Connections

I often write about the exhilaration I feel when one good book leads to another and another. After reading and enjoying Ticket to Minto, I interviewed the author, Sohrab Homi Fracis. He mentioned that he was pitching his novel-in-progress as “Jack Kerouac’s On the Road meets Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.”  This piqued my interest in The Namesake. I picked it up at the public library and I must say, it’s a very good book. The main character is a young man who does not appreciate the fact that his parents named him Gogol, after the writer, Nikolai Gogol. Only later does he find out the full story behind his name. But we won’t go into that now. The book begins with a quote from Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat.” Now I’m reading a collection of stories by Gogol on my iPhone, which I got from Kindle for only a couple of dollars. What a deal! Gogol is so cool that Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book about him, and that says a lot. 

eNotes tells us that  “The Overcoat”  is “both comic and horrific—at once a scathing social satire, moralistic fable, and psychological study” beginning with “the mundane and alienating world of a bureaucratic office in St. Petersburg . . . as the story progresses, we enter a fairy-tale world of supernatural revenge, where the clerk’s corpse is seen wandering city streets ripping coats off the backs of passersby.”

Read more at eNotes 

Satire, Cyberpunk, and Synesthesia

"This was preferable to Sweeney in a good mood as he had a spiral smile which operated like a Chinese finger trap, inescapable up to your shoulder." - from Book 1 of The Complete Accomplice: Only An Alligator, by Steve Aylett

Preliminary notes on my Steve Aylett thesis. 

I used to called Aylett’s work a combination of cyberpunk, satire, and psychedelia. But “psychedelia” is too limited, too narrow. 

Aylett’s work is characterized by three things: Cyberpunk settings, classic satire, and a visual image orientation. 

I. Cyberpunk

a. Rudy Rucker’s definition of cyberpunk: “Fast and dense. It has a lot of information . . . will try to reach a high level of information-theoretic complexity.”

Rucker says that the visual representations of “punk” (spiked hair, safety-pinned britches, etc) will gradually fade with fashion, but the essence of punk, and by extension, the essence of cyberpunk, will remain.

b. Michael Moorcock says, in his review of  The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, in the Guardian.co.uk:

Cyberpunks were what the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson called themselves when first signaling their break with conventional SF. What identified cyberpunk was a sophisticated interest in current events, a guess that the Pacific Rim might soon become the centre of world politics, a keen curiosity about the possibilities of post-PC international culture and a love of noir detective fiction. Characteristically, cyberpunk revived the noir thriller and might as easily be considered a development of the mystery as of science fiction.  

II. Satire

A. From Well Read Bear:

Roy Christopher: From this angle, your work is very slippery. Actually from every angle. What is it that you are you trying to do?

Steve Aylett: Most of my writing is satire, and most of that satire talks about manipulations, lies, and evasions, mainly in regard to power manipulations. But I go on about other stuff as well . . . I do old-time satire in the Voltaire/Swift tradition. Real satire, by taking people’s arguments (or evasions or justifications) to their logical extremes, snaps people back to the reality of the situation — i.e., that their evasions and justifications are cowardly bullshit. Of course it only works if there’s a scrap of honesty in the reader to begin with, so it doesn’t always work, and the way things are going socially, it’ll work less and less. There’ll be no honesty to appeal to, and no concept of that. There’ll be no admission that there are facts and nobody will even remember the original motive for that evasion — that to deny that there’s such a thing as a fact, means you can do anything to anyone without feeling bad about it. If you tell yourself they didn’t feel what you did to them, they didn’t feel it. To deny you did it means you didn’t do it. Welcome to the swamp.

  III. Visual

a. Synesthesia – (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), “sensation“—is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

 b. From the Rick Klaw interview on Fantastic Metropolis:

Rick Klaw: Many of your projects feature your own artwork. Are you a frustrated artist who became a writer or are you a writer who dabbles in art? Do you enjoy producing the art that accompanies your writing?

Steve Aylett: I’m a writer but I like drawing, music and stuff like that. In art I like extreme color, as I’m synaesthetic and get really interesting stuff from colors. There are reversed-acidic colors you can get with Photoshop artwork that’s difficult to get by painting unless you’re using metal flake. I did a lot of fun stuff for the LINT project, and I’ve just done a cartoony cover and title page for the US edition of The Inflatable Volunteer (Wildside Press)—though they inevitably chose the less colorful of the cover options I sent them. I get music from color and color from music, so I also do music projects like the music/textures/shrieking bloody vortexes I do with The Wesley Kern Gun, of which there’s a CD coming out soon from Humbug in Norway, who specialise in weird music. I’m also doing a project with Stephen O’Malley of the subsonic guitar band SunnO))). And it’s fun doing mindlessly stupid comedy like Lord Pin too, which is just mumbled stand-up.

Rick Klaw: When did you first use your own art in conjunction with your writing?

Steve Aylett: I remember writing a version of Jason and the Argonauts when I was about five or something, with illustrations of the monsters. But the sailors would always run away when they saw the monsters or the seven skeletons—Jason would shout “Get back to the ship” and they would sail away from the island. They never had a fight. That’s me: lack of appropriate conflict, too much conflict in areas that aren’t meant to be disputed.

c. Alan Moore 

D. Harlan Wilson talks to Aylett about Alan Moore

This is only the beginning.

Thorne Smith: Satire and the Supernatural from the Roaring 20’s

Illustrations by Herb Roese surround a photo of Thorne Smith

Thorne Smith wrote towards the end of Prohibition until the opening years of the Great Depression and left behind one of the most delightful mirrors of contemporary American Life of the era. Thorne was a junior member of the Algonquin Round Table and a friend (maybe lover) of Dorothy Parker, but his books were considered outright scandalous despite their hilarity and popularity. Because of the outrageous nature of his stories, Thorne managed the distinction of being a best selling author that no one would admit to reading. Stephen Dare at Metro Jacksonville explores the legacy of Thorne Smith.