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The Barcelona Review

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 from Heart of the Original

Every sentence comes directly at you.”

On Sant Jordi’s Day, Catalonians give each other gifts of books and roses in a celebration of literacy and love. If this were combined with the running of the bulls, the procession of the flagellants and the tomato-throwing festival, it would more closely resemble the tribulations of those trying to read—or love. I was trying to read Greg Egan once and was hectically attacked by a chimp. Videogames are meant to be an escape from the hassles of life but there too we are subjected to the violent stylings of vampires, cops and zombies. True escape would be an environment to explore without harassment or obstruction.
       Words have the device-like detailed architecture of diatoms, and a glowing soul. A word will present itself as armatured with potential, as though with arms open, calling via your intuition to another word in another environment. You can enrich the stuff of life by bringing together two words which have never, ever been introduced to one-another before. Perhaps because they dwell in different contexts or in the jargon of different disciplines, they are never held in the attention at the same time. Yet when put together, their cogs mesh as if they were made for each other and a massive amount of energy is released. This lexical love story is great to be a part of—how else would they have met without you playing Cupid? But when this manner of perception is habitual and constant, the vast transforming fields of idea-forms so effortlessly generated will tend to highlight the starved emptiness of a culture that replaces rich, consequential honesty with flimsy, contentless ‘transparency’. When the figure zero came out of India it was meant to be built upon, not craved as entertainment. Yet rather than give the still-born a civilized burial, booksellers display them for sale and entertainment like a macabre Victorian sideshow.
       We’ve all encountered the sort of book that makes ordinary sense to most readers but perfect sense to those few whose minds revolve with the booming boomerang of the Milky Way. How much more wonderful, then, is a book that makes ordinary sense to no-one. There are thousands of so-far unnamed emotions. What might be expressed by an alphabet of 60 letters like Abkhaz, or the mere addition of the letter else or Grant Morrison’s triple-you? We may compose a sentence that has more peptide bonds than it should hold.
       A book may assemble a grammar that puts the world into bejewelled order, provides arcane nourishment or the charged sense of being an instant on the real road. Triangular dreams leave a galore scorch on the brain and heart. The million micro-tears a language undergoes are part of accident’s great design—mad chance gave us the Brautigan-like oddness of the Bible’s camel-and-needle’s-eye image, the result of the Aramaic word ‘gamla’ meaning both ‘camel’ and ‘rope’. It’s a vision worthy of the balls-out crazy mayhem of Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, a specific-rich art book in the tradition of the Voynich Manuscript. The joy of good surrealist art is that it puts you in a landscape where something interesting is happening at last. It reminds us of the time we idly wished for a head of three gyroscopic Ferris wheels in gold, black and red, or for a pea-pod to bear tiny faces which are at first startled and then flirtatious. Straight compositions remind us of a life barren of meaningful monkey business. The slantwise-stretched skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors manoeuvred the viewer to a point where they could read an inscription on the edge of the original frame, probably sarcastic and now lost. Conversely some writing is less intent on what it says than on where your mind has to manoeuvre itself to understand it. Once in that place, forget the text and look around.
       Giorgio de Chirico was a painter of strange late light and objects placed like chess pieces. Here are red earth, a gallery of arches, a tailor’s dummy and those long black shadows which jet away from everything. It became an easily invoked cliché for advertisers and De Chirico himself lost interest, instead writing his first and only book Hebdomeros, a series of woozy atmospheres so diagonal it can only be a gateway to weaker books. Compared to this dodgy mess dashed off by a literarily clueless painter as he walked through a revolving door, most repeat writers have as much artistic ambition as a fossilized spud. Most books are reposts. Duplication paces the perimeter of pre-formed patterns. When the American genocide began, the invaders were free to smash upward into something new but instead made a preface of duplicating everything Europe had done, giving special emphasis to the garbage. This stale gauntlet reached a pitch with Henry James, who prayed before a silver semicolon and exercised a restraint so radical he imploded, taking a tornado of teak furniture and thousands of readers with him. A style prevailed that stated as little as possible in the most possible words. They even used this dross to paint over native masterpieces like the PopolVuh. Among the few who ignored the colonial recapitulation was Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass is so brilliant it’ll pin you to your body. Some works are not dry tissue waiting for an observer to come and vitrify it. In a society which has amassed standards as a buttress against curiosity and invention, there are works with so many building code violations that a life of dazzling density finds its way in at every hole, shoots growing like turning keys. While others complained that the sky was nowhere near the window, Whitman opened the foliage door to astonishment. A bird could fly through it.
       In the Medieval Irish novella The Frenzy of Suibhne, which starts with the slapstick of his clothes being accidentally torn away as he goes to confront a priest, Suibhne flips out amid a battle. But he is not a berserker and drops his weapons as an irrelevance—he becomes a wandering poet, still naked. Meant as a religious tract in which the poet’s life is the result of a Christian curse, the author obviously loved composing the poetry that Suibhne chants on his travels. Such tracts are like the religious commissions of classical painters, who innovated strenuously to make the theme interesting to themselves in a way they could get away with. The most accomplished on this score was Hieronymus Bosch, whose idea of Paradise was a giant turkey baster surrounded by baffled wildlife. The egg-on-legs in his Hell appears a cosy abode and would be looked upon with envy by the millions without shelter today. Suibhne became a Boschian bird but found no friendly shelter until Brian O’Nolan transformed him again in At Swim-Two-Birds. O’Nolan was a cast-iron genius and master of the Irish art of falling sideways into a sentence. He was also one for the time-honoured practice of inventing an author to provide commentary and to comment upon, a great way of getting rid of dozens of ideas per page—though for less ambitious writers such as Nabokov it merely creates one meaning inside another, like being dead inside a hospital. Publishers clamped their eyes shut to O’Nolan’s The Third Policeman, another enviable Hell in which the participants are guaranteed basic amenities—and their eyes sprang open again after his straitened death. This venting of contempt prior to kindness, most graphically expressed in the military slaughter of civilians prior to candy distribution, is personified in the many pre-Christmas visitations of Saint Nicholas in Scandinavia and central Europe, during which he dresses up as a demon and rages through the neighbourhood, beating children with sticks, pelting them with coal and carrying them away in sacks to abandon in the middle of Spain. Children who already live in the middle of Spain are merely given a desultory prod in the eye, which they seem to accept with good humour. The Spanish tourist industry tried to sell this as a positive but couldn’t really convey it—thus their reliance on a chaos of tomatoes, bulls and flagellation. The flipside to ‘cruelty before kindness’ is the south London practice of smiling at a man you are about to push through a plate glass window.
       A book can bite you like a snake or unhook its jaw to digest you whole, slowly. It may be a rosebud clutched around a compressed infinity, an engine with all the scintillatory operation of a Tibetan thangka or a blessing from around ten corners in someone else’s breakdown. One step aside waits a book like an alien fruit, a book like a rack of honeycomb, a book like a cognitive cathedral, a book that behaves like a liquid but explodes like a solid, a book that has pops and scratches like an old vinyl record, a book with tiny hook teeth, a stroboscopic book like an ocean species, a book that reconfigures between readings, a book of fused glass strata, a book you fall through quickly or an imprisoning book which slams upon you, its surface imperceptibly laughing. Dense, wordily mischievous ordeal novels like Moses de Leon’s Zohar and Gurdjieff'’s Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson were designed to overtask the rational mind to the point where it relents, leaving instinct to watch their colourful play of symbolic recurrences.
       But heft has no inherent value. Roman consul Lucius Opimius put a bounty on the head of reformer Gaius Gracchus, to the head’s weight in gold. The man who brought the head filled it with lead so that it weighed nearly eighteen pounds. The book racket operates in a similar way, bloating its products with enough filler to result in books that are placid animals dangerous only for their great size. Luckily for the book trade, most writers haven’t enough passion to ever burn out.
       Bored by vertical and horizontal grammar, books without curves and so with a weak echo reflection, the weary individual is attracted at the very least to work so delicate the author must work between heartbeats, a literature that works through barometric variation. So the dog-in-a-sidecar joy experienced upon encountering even a single book which is active, that adds countless new elements to the literary periodic table, will swoon you into fizzing pools of rediscovered self-respect. To find them, be ravenous.

© Steve Aylett 2015

 This electronic excerpt, “Exotic Accelerants,” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett, published by Unbound, 2015. Book ordering available through and

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio
Steve AylettSteve Aylett is the author of several books including LINT (Snowbooks), Slaughtermatic (Thunder’s Mouth Press) and Novahead (Scar Garden Press). He was awarded the Jack Trevor Story Award in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award with Slaughtermatic. He lives in Brighton.

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