Monday, 7 November 2011

Fain the Sorceror by Steve Aylett

A weird monster not featured in this book
This is another one that came to me on the Kindle, the only other version being a long out-of-print version from PS Books. This another good thing about ebooks: as well as the long list of out-of-copyright classics these types of hard-to-find gems are coming back in to circulation.

This is a more glittery gem than most. Steve Aylett is ruthlessly parsimonious with words: he's not keen to spend them unless he really thinks he's getting his money's worth, and so while this book is short it contains all the glister of a dozen longer works from more profligate writers. Some times you have to read a sentence twice not because the meaning is unclear, but because it has so many shades of meaning, in so few words, that it takes time to process them all.

Alan Moore sums up the problem with this style in his introduction: “If we loved Steve Aylett, really loved him in the way he deserves, a selfless love that genuinely wanted nothing save his happiness and comfort, we'd lobotomise him.”

Alan's point is that if he just dumbed down, Steve could be a super-star. If that talent for the ridiculous and the absurd and the profound and hilarious could be slowed down to a speed that could be absorbed through the stupor of the morning commute or boozy summer-holiday once-a-year read then he'd be a best seller.

I think his biggest weakness – related to the above, I suppose – is that he's a genre of one. He doesn't fit easily within any particular group. His work is too weird for the usual genre humour crowd, and too silly for mainstream literary types. There's no point of reference when you read Steve Aylett, no set of expectations to hold on to and tick off as you go through.

Steve ignores traditional narrative structures, even the satirical ones of the innocent abroad or the farce focused on a nest of rogues. Each of his stories follows its own path, regardless of where any other piece of writing has gone before.  The closest he's written to a recognised form is the pseudo biography, Lint. He's more concerned with a more abstract progression of ideas that's more familiar from poetry than from the novel.

Fain the Sorceror is based around a series of cyclical movements in plot and theme, ballooning backward and forward in time but getting precisely nowhere. It's a string of encounters with the self, a kind of spiralling black hole of recursion that made me think more of a ballad than a story.

I found the language here, too, more poetic than usual. There's no doubt that Steve's got a great control of language, but here he gets quite profound.

“You were fortunate to blunder upon time travel as your first gift. Do you see how your thin life has changed and grown richer? Time is central to life. Anything that is a process requires the dimension of time. Flowers require it, for instance. Only something which is fixed and finished does not. Is it coincidental that when a thing is fixed, as in a museum, all life goes out of it? You will know when someone has manipulated time, because the day misses a beat.”
He's skirted around wisdom before. His aphorisms sometimes look like their heading somewhere meaningful before spinning off into the higher realms of punning metaphor that tweaks your brain in a way that maybe only a few writers can – only Spike Milligan at his most penetratingly off-kilter comes close, and he lacks Aylett's jaded hipster carapace.
“Life is a quantum entanglement of delays and repeated perplexities.”
I've seen this book described as “Vancian”. Fain is a Vancian hero, starting out motivated by Cugel-like self interest, but developing wisdom in the end. The challenges he encounters have that allegorical fairy tale feel that Vance sometimes approaches, but Aylett doesn't have the pulp writers' ballast that keeps dragging Old Jack's eyes down from the clouds.

Aylett takes vivid fairytale elements that similar to those in The Dying Earth (especially the titular first volume) and throws them in the air like petals: the rivalry with Hackler Thorn, his ongoing attempts to rescue the princess and claim the kingdom, his Odysseus-like time dalliance with the mermaid. Like the best myths, though, they refuse easy interpretation, but send you back inside to consider the interior point of it all.

I read this in the same week that we got a new Tom Waits album, another genre of one. That's what I look for, I guess, those artists that are genres of one.

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