Steve Aylett is a singular author and Smithereens, his latest (and possibly final short story) collection centres on the idea of originality. Or perhaps that is just my misprision of it. I’ll come back to this. A word of warning: when I say short stories, I do mean short. Not that this is an issue but it is like reading a three minute punk track. The difference between them and the advert is that Aylett knows more than three chords.
The longest story in the collection is ‘The Voyage of the Iguana’, a parodic version of nineteenth century scientfic travelogues. In the parody, which contains a certain amount of Rabelaisan humour, Aylett asks the questions that any sensible reader asks about the keeping of diaries in novels – where does the keeper keep the diary in dire peril? Meanwhile the voyage itself goes from surreal adventure to adventure with a knowing wink to the reader but completely enjoying itself.
It is a salutory reminder that amidst the madness of his writing, Aylett can write some fantastic writing as Lint, his mock-biography of Jeff Lint attests, and its associated collection of criticism, And Your Point Is?. In both he points at the absurdities of both forms of non-fiction whilst creating, to my mind, some of his finest writing. I got into his writing during the Beerlight books which Gollancz published but to my shame haven’t kept up as assiduously as I should have done.
In his introduction to DH Wilson’s Scikungfi trilogy, he writes “If you’re going to write, write something interesting and original, or get the fuck out of the way” (page 105, Smithereens). It is a bald summary of these stories, a rumination on the perceived or real lack of originality in writing or publishing. He riffs of the notion of post-modernism and remixing sources. There is no real “ironic” take on it, Aylett draws out the possibilities to a logical extent with a facility that is scary but fun.
He was, briefly, co-opted into the New Weird sub-genre and wrote ‘Download Syndrome’, a short about mobile communication culture and its … (sorry, forgot what I was writing here). Aylett himself wasn’t really a New Weird author but he does share the Modernist tendencies with some of the authors, such as Jeff Vandermeer. His Lovecraft skit, The Things in the City, is a warm reflection of Lovecraft’s purple prose but retains his own searching for something.
His writing hasn’t quite had the uptake that it should have done. Smithereens is reminder of strengths of Aylett’s writing and I look forward to digging out all my copies and re-reading them. Even getting the missing books (there are one or two). His originality and open depth of references to really get under the skin of some of his work can be daunting. It is equally to the detriment of the reader to walk away from writing such as this because it is difficult. It demands attention and care. This is not fiction as a way of seeing the world but fiction as pure art(ifice).