No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Toxicology -- Steve Aylett

Toxicology bears the stamp, in quality and quantity, of impatience: a first collection of Aylett's short work, it includes pieces that might have been omitted if publication had been delayed for a few years. The anthology first appeared in the United States in 1999. It consisted of unpublished work as well as pieces (to call them 'stories' would be limiting, if not inaccurate) that had appeared in miscellaneous anthologies and publications since 1994. This expanded UK edition includes six additional pieces: some have been published in the last couple of years, while others are new. The additions are identifiable by their British spelling, if nothing else, since the earlier works retain the Americanised variants of words.

The diversity of the publications which have featured Aylett's short fiction gives an idea of his surreally eclectic material. Here are slipstream stories from themed anthologies like Disco 2000 and the NEL Book of Internet Short Stories: postmodern horror and satire from the independent magazine sector (Gargoyle, Carpe Noctem): topical rants from The Idler: and several pieces, like the Wodehouse pastiches 'Dread Honour' and 'Ballroom', which appear in Toxicology for the first time.

Aylett is best-known for his futuristic 'Beerlight' thrillers (Beerlight, as far as anyone can tell, being a State of America as much as a state of mind) and his contemporary crime fiction. This anthology reveals a broader spectrum of mode and inspiration, though there are common threads of satire, surrealism and social commentary. In particular, Aylett's fictions are often concerned with the failures of law - whether metaphorically ('What is the law but a cloven hoof embedded in a fallen child's belly?') or literally, as in the anti-CJB tale 'Repeater', dating from 1995. There are several tales of Beerlight, including a couple featuring non-detective Taffy Atom, star of last year's novel Atom: crime noir, metamorphosed, is still a staple of Aylett's fictions.

Aylett's style, while not noteably original, is distinctively his own: an extravagant melange of surreal imagery, pulp cliché, philosophical hypotheses and crazed ramblings. Many of the pieces collected here are more situation than story, and sacrifice plot, development and closure on the metallised black altar of style. (Some consider this a bad thing, I'm told). In the best of them, there's the precision of a stripped-down machine: even the worst are churning masses of eminently quotable aphorisms and images that stick in the head. Not to be taken in large quantities, as this may lead to inversion of the skull.

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