24 August 2016

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology -- What a surprise. These critical essays fail to turn you off the author.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology is nothing short of an addict’s value-added fix. Usually critical essays make me feel sorry for the author, since critical essays tend to be like that bitter stuff put on a committed thumb-sucker’s digit.  But this exceptional collection made me want to reread and find more Aylett stuff, and it enhances with new insights, intriguing conundrums that even he can’t solve—and does all this with such wit and creativity that this critical anthology is a disgraceful disturbance to the calm, congealed status quo of critical works.
 edited by Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson
published by Sein und Werden

The essayists, each marvelous writers in their own right, probably couldn’t write the kind of essays Aylett skewers in his unspelled-out And Your Point Is? Scorn and Meaning in Jeff Lint’s Fiction.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology, though no hagiography, is written by people who not only appreciate Aylett as much as I do but are also SA evangelicals.

“If he could just stop the Tourett’s flood of original ideas, dilute the language so the reader only had to pause and shake the head in admiration every paragraph or so rather than every other line, this man could be a sales phenomenon, could be a franchise.... Read the book, first to yourself, then, unavoidably, aloud to friends until they’re sick of you.”
— Alan Moore, from his “Introduction to Fain the Sorcerer

There are many mind-scouring (often explosively funny) quotes from Aylett’s works and the man himself; and from Rachel Haywire, there’s a new interview. All the pieces, for the most part, speak in understandable tongues. ‘Diegetic’ was used only 5 times, four, in an extraordinary (tongue-in cheek?) work of scholarship by Iain Matheson; and Derrida barely gets a look-in. These essays, often with titles way too interesting for serious journals, are a mix of preoccupations and questions posed and plumbed, one of which is plot.

But plot, as Jim Matthews says, misses the point. He writes: “I’ll invite and deserve a lot of flak if I don’t at least briefly state that Aylett’s work goes a lot deeper than just first effects, and often no distinction can be made. The satirical element of his work is strung throughout like hi-tensile electric fence-wire and is, for him, paramount. He says, ‘People have lost touch with what real satire is...’ ”

They sure have. “[Shaun Micallef] refuses to spell out exactly what it means. The best satires ... are always very diligent in explaining their jokes.” — Ben Pobjie, “I blame Shaun Micallef for the horror of Australian politics", Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2016

Now, that is imo, a perfect piece of satire, showing why today’s true satirists are rare as standup comedians who don’t laugh at their jokes. But satire is always rooted in tragedy—so because Aylett is the real thing and is tragically, nowhere near as famous as he should be, and because his novel Lint should be always in print in say, a “Popular Penguin” edition but so far, isn’t — I hazarded trying this book.

The discussions of satire here—what it is, what Aylett thinks it is, great satirists, in the opinions of these essayists and Aylett himself—are both fascinating and desperately needed. I loved Andrew Wenaus’ “Satire, Anxiety, and Prospect in The Caterer” partly because I agree with Spencer Pate in thinking Aylett’s masterpieces to be Lint and And Your Point Is?, and I would add The Caterer comic.

Some other topics bemused me because I don’t understand them, though they are of great importance to so many readers, critics and editors. I don’t get speed at all. Okay, if it’s not Elmore Leonard or a Mac, isn’t one person’s fast consumable another’s slow, and why does speed matter unless something’s so slow that it’s fast because you can’t read it at all, like I can’t José Saramago’s suffocating single-paragraph novels? But speed obviously matters, since “It’s a fast read” is considered a plus in a review, while ‘fast food’ is its own damnation. So Robert Kiely’s statement “[Aylett’s] prose is uncompromisingly fast” in his essay “Speed, Originality and Déjà vu in Bigot Hall” reminded me of how even the most definitive statement in a critical essay is, undressed, a human POV. I find Aylett a slow read, which is why I enjoy him so much. He’s got so much on every page that to read it fast is to skim. I find Dr. Seuss a slow read too, and Joseph S. Pulver Sr., and Nesbit and Wodehouse, and Rikki Ducornet. They’re all slow reads because I love to loiter on the page. But Kiely’s essay, like this whole contrarian collection, sucked me in. It is both insightful and deeply thought out. Also, as with many of these essays, it introduced me to other authors and works I can’t wait to explore.

A wonderful conundrum asked and unsolved in this volume could be summed up by the statement “I know not what I do, unless I do and I don’t know”. Does Aylett mean to say what he does all the time, does he know what he means—and when is he taking the piss out of, uh, who? This mystery was great fun to read, and it certainly doesn’t seem as if Aylett is, like Dylan Thomas, famously laughing at us finding meaning when there isn’t. It’s good to know, when this reader isn’t sure, that he might not be either. Or maybe he was, and forgot. There’s so much in that head.

You will not only find gems you mightn't find for yourself in Aylett's works, but many other treasures--other authors' works, musicians' (Spencer Pate's "The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett" is a personal favourite), and running back to Aylett, background, underpinnings, motivations, nuances. The essays themselves also give such vicarious pleasure as they transmit their joy in discovery. You will also find that spirit of mentorship/admiration/camaraderie/almost a salon, that is in the best spirit of brilliant creatives inspiring/encouraging each other instead of seeing each other as competitors. And I’ve left the editors and essayists Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson to last. I particularly liked Bill Ectric’s lovely description of exploring Aylett’s treasures. He is one of those modest people who has so much under the surface, yet doesn’t let on about his erudition. This book is, I think, primarily his brainchild, but he and Wilson must have complemented each other to produce such a fine, and subversive outcome. 

Far from putting you off an author, this book of critical essays does what they all should—Enhance, entrance, intrigue, and make you want to get your mitts on, at the very least, every work by the unique Steve Aylett.

Heart of the Original by Steve AylettNote: Looking back, I noticed that I’ve written more posts about Aylett on this blog than I have about any other exceptional, even the quince. So if you haven’t tried Aylett, try these for starters:

Immerse yourself.