"It's perfectly possible to get lost in Aylett's imagery just standing around in Foyle's skimming a copy of Alligator or Karloff. But a simple summary of the books is unable to take account of the shifting strands of satire and detail that emerge from each arc of the story, incidental images that often sideline the plot entirely. This is where the truth and the reality of Aylett's work breaks through."
Alexander Cavell dissects Steve Aylett's Accomplice novels for 3AM
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
How much of what we consider description ends up as creation? To put it another way, how many un-associated facts can you bear to hear? Let's say you've got a boring uncle, a guy full of nonsense trivia, spewing a constant ticker tap tirade of the sort of stuff that they use to fill Christmas crackers. What's so bad about him? He's annoying, but why? Might it be because he simply won't shut up, or is it that he ricochets from one meaningless piece of information to the next without any sense of plot or invention? The facts that he's trying to communicate have no context --there's no order there. And worst of all there's no creation either. This wouldn't be such a problem if your uncle was locked in basement, out of earshot, subjecting no one but himself to his inane banter. No, the real reason why your uncle is so vapid is because he's doing violence to your imagination.
There's only so much you can say -- in the literary medium at least- there's only so much that you can describe about the world being spooned into your eyes, before you wander away from observation altogether. Your uncle's trivia is the only exception here. Uncle's un-wisdom has no order, no pattern and no obvious purpose.
By depicting the world, by encapsulating an infinitely variable exterior reality within broad and general terms -- within words -- you're creating something distinct from that reality. Something sealed in time. Follow a train of thought, build a logical argument, write an essay or a crappy limerick and the world begins to divide -- you can feel tectonic bacteria split and multiply underneath your feet.
So, why all this talk of hypothetical uncles chained up in cellars? The point I'm trying to make is that fiction is a statement of truth. Fiction is fact as a loadstone, pointing beyond the membrane of the moment. Repeat the truth, sequence the truth, strap a bow tie and tux to your chest and conduct the truth, and eventually, you'll create fiction. There is no sense in which an honest author can represent the world without adding something to it. Even adverts work up faint desires into parallel products, latent objects, endlessly alluring or tasty or daring. And those faint desires are real; they're true even if you won't admit to them. Fiction without truth is insincere and truth without structure, labour or art isn't fiction.
That's the preamble finished. You can safely forget everything that came before this sentence. I can't just stumble into a drawn out summary of something so complicated as literary theory, with only my uncle metaphors for protection. These things need planning and academic qualifications. Real academic qualifications, not the made-up sort...
I don't expect you to think seriously about the unique, literal truths inherent in all forms of fiction. Fiction may not be truth, but true is really the only way to describe Steve Aylett's Accomplice series.
The Accomplice novels -- Only an Alligator, The Velocity Gospel, Dummy Land and Karloff's Circus -- form a quartet, episodes in an over arching plot. The books are infused with countless in jokes, subplots (many play out in the space of a single paragraph) and encoded allusions to… well, everything; the other books in the series; politics; the bible; Yeats; Sanskrit esoterica. All delivered with a satiric smirk and an unhealthy dose of certainty.
Accomplice itself is a town, an isolated parochial paradise, influenced by the disturbingly sedate Trumpton and the hazy, pastoral blotches of countryside that still surround London. The fields full of fungal heads, the prancing jesters and houses grown from bone that constitute Accomplice sit atop the creep channels, a tunnel network modelled on a CAT scan of a migraine, home to the bloated mantis demon Sweeney and his interchangeable collection of henchmen- only some of whom are gay.
Don't forget that this is just context and environment, the physical detail that Aylett feverishly fuses together into a delicious, synthetic whole. I haven't even started on plot or characterisation. So what's actually going on? I'm trying to compress an overview of four cunningly original books it to the space of a thousand words. You may experience disorientation, nausea and hair loss, but this is still a review, not a thesis. You're here because you want to know whether or not you should buy one of Steve Aylett's books. If, like me, you buy books compulsively, then you'll want to know whether the money you just spent on an Accomplice novel would really have been better used to buy food or medicine.
If you were paying attention, then you'll already have realised part of Accomplice's attraction. Aylett's writing is virulent, infectious. All good fiction starts with truth, building worlds from the realities frozen by description. However, only certain writers are able to communicate the addictive beauty of this process an audience. A mass of "nerve work" -- Aylett's term for the patterns and codes that are set in motion beneath his Accomplice's surrealist sheen -- allows curious readers a direct glimpse at each novel's subtext, all but demanding repeat readings and obsessive analysis.
A synopsis then. No distractions. The Accomplice novels are satirical take on the ensemble drama- trawl through the publicity material and you'll see them described as a "polychrome soap". The books' main protagonist, Barney Juno, is an utter simpleton, endlessly distracted by the tropical foibles of his home town. Barney wants only to "care for the winged and stepping animals of the earth and to be happy". As the first of novels -- Only an Alligator -- begins, Barney unwittingly earns the enmity of the demon king, Sweeney, by rescuing the titular reptile from the horrific borderland between Accomplice and Sweeney's realm. Sweeney himself is determined to destroy Barney, believing his lack of guile to be a cunning ruse, "distress camouflage", in spite of a prophecy that clearly identifies Barney as Sweeney's eventual assassin.
Aylett is content to leave this crew to play out over the series' five hundred pages, smoothly segueing from ballistic funeral rites (The Velocity Gospel), to a bittersweet take on Shelley's Frankenstein (Dummy Land) and the arrival of a demented carnival, featuring performances from Trubshaw, "a sort of walking pot roast" and Zombie acrobats The Amazing Dead Brothers (Karloff's Circus).
It's perfectly possible to get lost in Aylett's imagery just standing around in Foyle's skimming a copy of Alligator or Karloff. But a simple summary of the books is unable to take account of the shifting strands of satire and detail that emerge from each arc of the story, incidental images that often sideline the plot entirely. This is where the truth and the reality of Aylett's work breaks through.
It's because so much of Accomplice's setting is real, that the networks of simile and metaphor which Aylett builds into each of the books are able to leap instantly into the surreal. The vastly dozing clutches of fields twenty miles outside Greenwich, are as characteristic of Accomplice as they are of south east England. Aylett's approach to language irradiates these calm, empty spaces and suddenly the meadows are full of "parked cows", "a goat waiting for a taxi" or the "bleached and shattered bones of a Steinway spider". Otherwise static and vacuous landscapes are polarised under a torrent of epigram, and what may start out as arbitrary details- greenhouses, burnt out cars, substations or rusting farm machinery- suddenly become vital and innovative. And the style, epigram, is almost as important to Aylett's work as his subject matter. We can trace Aylett's images to their root, we can locate their literal origins easily enough, and to this degree they reflect reality -- but Accomplice is substantially more than a sequence of absurd allegories. There's a paradox, between the depth and lucidity of Aylett's prose and the arrogant precision of his vocabulary and syntax. In other words, Aylett's brevity is deceptive. Something this rapid shouldn't be so intoxicating or so dense with ideas.
The Accomplice series doesn't so much grow out of control as start out of control. It's a roaring, groaning perpetual motion machine decked out as a fun fair attraction. Read it and you'll need resuscitating.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Alexander Cavell is studying Sociology at the London School of Economics. He has been writing since the age of nine, despite ample evidence to suggest that he isn't any good at it. Alexander still regards syntax and grammar as quaint formalities and he reads like other people smoke -- in cramped spaces, with a naked flame.