April 2006

Justin Taylor


An Interview with Steve Aylett

It’d be nice to start with a striking physical description of Steve, but he lives in England (I don’t) and images on his website, as well as a Google image search, netted mostly cartoons or digitally manipulated photos, but he seems, uh, skinny. And cool (translation: usually wearing very dark glasses).

Basically, I’m putting off having to try and speak generally about his body of work, which does not yield to generalizing (more on this in short order), though the words “iridescent clusterfuck” keep popping into my head. (Aside: though Bookslut doesn’t title its interviews, my personal secret title for this interview is the phrase “a fertile chaos of throbbing trash,” from Aylett’s Bigot Hall, with emphases on “fertile” and “throbbing.”)

Perhaps a survey of his works would be helpful. There’s LINT, the faux-biography; Bigot Hall, a choke-on-your-laughter funny multiple fracture of an English boyhood; The Tao de Jinx, a self-published anthology of his own best quotes; Fain the Sorcerer, the story of a sorcerer named Fain and how he got that way (this, by the way, is the new novel that you ought to buy); the short story collection Toxicology; four novels in the Accomplice series; something called The Inflatable Volunteer which has been described as “poetic stand-up,” and an “intense splurge;” Slaughtermatic, which I have been told this is one of the most underrated books in living memory (but I just got my copy the other day, so I’ll need some time before I can assess that judgment); and a bunch of other titles which you can go to http://www.steveaylett.com to learn about, purchase, or denounce.

The Evening Standard once said that you're "as smart as he thinks he is, which is pretty scary."  Is this true? Are you as smart as you think you are?

I think I'm intelligent but not very smart as regards people and getting through life. I'm honest, which is not smart at all -- it's a handicap socially and in terms of money and basically anything involving human beings. I'm doomed.

Your work is hard to categorize, by which I mean pigeonhole. In a label-obsessed industry like publishing, I imagine this can be damning. Has your work suffered on account of its versatility and/or hybridity?

Yes. Some newer categories have been brought into play, such as slipstream, chemical generation, Bizarro, etc. I think the backbone that runs through my stuff is satire, but people don't really know what that is these days -- they confuse it with comedy or sarcasm. It's actually old-fashioned Voltairian satire, the real thing. Some people do understand that but get distracted by all the high-res weirdness that also goes on my stuff, and don't see past it. But there are worse things in life.

This reminds me of Donald Barthelme’s reluctant embrace of the label "postmodern" because, he said, it was less bad than the other choices. Is there one term you especially favor or, conversely, wish that people would stop using?

If there has to be a category I’d favour the satire one. But, yes, the slipstream category has been deployed, which seems to be for people who need a literary category wedged between the main categories like literary brunch.

There's the Bizarro category, that I didn't start -- that was a label that Carlton Mellick III put on his own stuff and inveigled a bunch of other writers into to make a bigger noise, which sort of worked. It's generally weird-&-different writing but the quality varies hugely. A lot of it is just gore-sex stuff that might have been transgressive a century ago, but there's some good stuff too. Carlton's probably the best of them. And me, if you count me in the category.

There’s the chemical generation category, which was about people dancing in clubs and somehow being surprised it didn't bring down the government. I don’t know how I got in there. There's the flash fiction thing which I occasionally get blamed for kicking off and which was probably nothing to do with me. Again, there's good stuff and bad stuff, depending partly on whether the writing is short from a desire for a loaded density of ideas or just from laziness or a short attention span.

There’s bitter, resentful venom. But as I said, I prefer the term satire.

Do you have a better time of it in England? I don't know anything about the state of publishing there, versus here or elsewhere internationally, but I know that American audiences aren't too keen on parsing colloquialisms (other than their own). So it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a more “American” books of yours, such as LINT, fare better here than fundamentally "English" works like Bigot Hall.

This 1980s Part 2 that we're going through at the moment is in force just as much in England as it is in America. Things are quite arid, and imagination or from-the-ground-up original thinking is frowned upon. Well, it's talked about as a myth, but then when it's encountered, it's frowned upon and dismissed as an aberration. Whether things will thaw out any time soon depends on whether the prejudice against interesting stuff gets written into actual law or remains a mere fashion.

In terms of the Englishness of some of the books, the only one that really trades on that is Bigot Hall, which is sort of in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock, as in a big posh house full of posh eccentrics. All that isn't a real representation of England, except for the pain levels. It was just a vehicle to do hyper-epicene stuff, which I was still working out how to do at the time.

Yes, the more American stuff like the Beerlight books and LINT are more appealing to publishers in the US, but plenty of readers say Bigot Hall or Shamanspace are their favourites, or a particular Accomplice book like Dummyland or something, and that they're indifferent to the noisy city stuff like Slaughtermatic. It's down to different tastes.

The general state of the publishing industry in England is fairly conservative and boring, as it is everywhere at the moment. They stock mainly stillborn stuff which has been recommended by Richard & Judy (our equivalent of an Oprah recommendation). Those recommendations seem to be for people who don't know what's been done before, or what's out there -- recommendations for people who don't really read a great deal. There are fewer small presses in the UK than there used to be, and way fewer than in the US, because people here haven’t got much money, and less every day. The bookshops don't stock those things, of course -- even established authors aren't stocked if their stuff seems a bit too colorful or ideas-rich. They'll stock Chuck Palahniuk and think they're being wacky and rebellious. So more and more people get books online.

Does the word "Bigot" in the title of your book Bigot Hall mean what I think it means? That is to say, does the word have a particular valence in England that is different from how it means in the USA (when we say "bigot" we mean Trent Lott).

It means the same thing. I like the sound of the word, and it's mainly completely inappropriate to the people in the Hall. They're actually like bigots reversed. Basically they're just minding their own business -- the book is set in the days when that was still legal.

Politics plays a larger role in your work than is typically acknowledged, even by your admirers. I suspect your political and/or social critique is often written off as more absurdist riffing, probably because people would rather cop-out than have to deal with it.

It’s assumed that if something’s funny it can’t be serious. I write a lot about power manipulations, hypocrisy too extreme to process, slavery too close to see, fashion as misdirection and so on. I like taking arguments or soundbites 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 satired 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 that they can’t acknowledge the existence of a factual world.

It’s bad enough here in the UK, but the US is getting beyond its usual grotesque. You might assume the US government is a worldwide laughing stock but it’s too much of a queasy sight for that, because it's actually dangerous -- it's like watching an insane child toying with a nuclear device. The American people, though, are a source of baffled amusement worldwide because they seem to take everything lying down as if they're just gung-ho for the fascist state. You can do anything to 'em, apparently. They seem to crave government enslavement, which is rather sad considering the American revolution and the whole Grand Experiment. There was never much chance of that working but now America seems to have just locked and bolted the door on the idea. I think that people generally -- especially in countries where there's been a certain amount of luxury and comfort -- will prefer repression and slavery to change and responsibility, especially when a fear factor is being waved around outside. There'll never be another revolution in America or England, because people are scared it’ll scratch their DVDs.

I’m also interested in the odd manipulations in everyday speech, like how these days most people don’t ask questions but instead make a statement and assume you’ll counter, or they’ll load the answer they want into the question. For most conversations your presence isn’t really required -- people can handle it all on their own.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Any writers or styles of writing you just abhor?

I like Voltaire, Octavia Butler, Richard Brautigan, JP Donleavy, Jack Vance and a lot of others I can’t remember at the moment. Some of my favourite books are by authors whose other stuff I can’t get into -- I like Little, Big by John Crowley but not his other stuff. I like Catch-22 but couldn’t get into Heller’s other stuff. The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary is a thing of beauty but I can’t get into his other books. And I like political writers who, even at the risk of insulting people’s intelligence, stated the obvious-but-unfashionable and were ignored until the situation under discussion was safely in the past and the author safely dead. People like Randolph Bourne, who was the Noam Chomsky of his day. I suppose I don’t like most writers, because most waste paper and the reader’s time. Middle class dinner parties and divorces, or the drug-taking grunge/gore alternative to that -- none of it has any juice/originality in it. I wish Jeff Lint existed.

Speaking of LINT,  is it as much a satire of Philip K. Dick as I think it is?

It’s about a writer who writes what he wants to read, who goes through a late dawning stage of realising he would like some financial success but, lacking that, continues to write what he wants to read. The structure allowed me to write a bunch of miniaturist books within the novel and make hundreds of great little housings for satire devices. As regards the actual character, it's not PKD or what you term a satire on him. There were a couple of direct PKD parallels, the main one being Lint's equivalent of the "pink light experience." But there were other people in there. There's a fair bit of me in there obviously. The Energy Draining Church Bazaar concept album stuff was like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica rehearsals, plus some 13th Floor Elevators. The "Lint is Dead" stuff was a bit of the Beatles’ "Paul is dead," of course, but also in the mid-70s a blurb appeared in one of Mike Moorcock's books saying Moorcock was dead, whereas he's still very much alive -- I saw him the other day. But most of Lint is just the sort of thing I would have liked an author to do during those years -- I wish Jeff Lint did exist, and that those books were out there waiting to be read. Strangely, after the book was done, I found out about the writer Harry Stephen Keeler, who really existed as far as I know, and he has quite a similarity to Lint. Keeler was, unfortunately, a crappy writer, but as a figure he was quite Lintian. He wrote what he wanted.

Did humor and the absurd come naturally to you?

I used to write when I was very young, and started again properly in my early teens, I think. The absurdist stuff may have originally come from having read so much and wanting something different to happen -- I was very aware of what had already been done. And as things went on it also operated as part of satire: taking people’s arguments to their logical conclusion.

What's your worst childhood memory?

The whole thing was a bit strange because I always felt very old, but locked inside a child. I spent a lot of time wondering why everyone was jumping about so much. I'm looking forward to getting really old, a scary staring old man, because I've always felt that way. If I last that long, it'll be like taking off a disguise that I've been forced to wear for years. People will stop expecting me to be giddily responsive to even the most boring things, and maybe finally they'll just leave me the fuck alone. I think the comedian Brother Theodore did the old age thing really well.

I have no idea who that is.

He was a monologuist who performed severe existentialist comedy. The older and more craggy he got, the better and funnier it was. He was glowering and curmudgeonly, which is a state I hope to achieve if I stick around long enough to grow jowls and so on. Theodore actually resembled the philosopher Emile Cioran, and had a similar world view (fairly accurate). He played occasional parts in movies, such as the old guy in The Burbs, who snaps "No!" to Bruce Dern. I think I'll start growing those jowls right now. I tried once before, but they were green and translucent. They were rubbish really. I had to nip them off and throw them away. It was a strange, almost dreamlike afternoon.

Justin Taylor is the criticism editor of Halfdrunkmuse.com and an associate editor for Pindeldyboz. Visit his personal website at http://www.justindtaylor.net/