‘Setting off through streets gummed with melting cellphones like cowchips’ – Novahead by Steve Aylett

If an infinite number of monkeys, an infinite number of portable typewriters, ever present you with the complete works of Shakespeare that they have finally got round to writing, ask them if you can see the last-but-one draft of Macbeth. Chances are it will be very like a Steve Aylett novel.

I mean that as a compliment.

Steve Aylett writes, I suppose, science fiction, but his style is so far removed from the genre’s norms that it would be pointless trying to make comparisons. The plot is always secondary to the prose. Aylett’s writing is heavy with words to such an extreme that at times he can be a difficult read. The first few pages nearly always present a sharp slap to the mind. Sometimes every sentence feels like a punch line or a Wildean bon mot. Aylett won’t say ‘I went back to the car’. He’ll say:

I ducked out and leopard-crawled unnecessarily back to the car, setting off through streets gummed with melting cellphones like cowchips.”

The effect of line after line of this can be a little like standing too close to a painting by Seurat. The overall image is lost and you are staring at little patches of bold colour all fighting for your attention. Which is not to say the colours are not very beautiful. Some of my favourite lines in fiction were written by Aylett. In an earlier novel, The Inflatable Volunteer, he wrote:

“Got home and wrote a huge treatise on geese, about which I know nothing. ‘It’s a routine bird,’ I concluded, lighting a cigar, ‘I can take it or leave it.’”

And in Novahead, as the concluding line of the first chapter, after the narrator describes how he feels that nothing in the city he has returned to will be as criminally inventive as before he left:

“I’ll try to describe the beautiful ways I was wrong.”

These and hundreds others like them are the appeal of Aylett’s work. He is fiendishly inventive. Aylett is one of those writers, like Perec, Joyce, or Burroughs, that anyone with plans to write themselves should read, learn from, and never, ever, try to emulate. His work is a demonstration of a method taken to its logical extreme. Like a tightrope walker, he does it so you don’t have to, but after watching him you may decide to take a few more risks. There is more poetry in one chapter of his prose than in the notebooks and memories of a thousand performance poets. Ideas spill from his prose like sugar off a jam doughnut. He is not an easy read, he will never be mainstream, but then neither will LSD; you have to make your own decisions on these things.

(I should probably point out that was a hilarious joke. Don’t do drugs kids. Stay in school. Users are losers.)

So do I even need to tell you what happens in Novahead? Do I need to tell you what the novel is about? Not really. It is the story of a man and a boy and a bomb and one last case. But the plot doesn’t matter. What matters is the words and if you aren’t prepared to spend time with the words then move along, nothing to see here.

Any Cop: Novahead is perhaps not as strong as some of Aylett’s other works, and he is definitely an acquired taste, but Aylett is still improbably original and often brain-twisting funny.


Benjamin Judge

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