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The Crime Studio
Orion paperback £6.99
review by Trent Walters
Looking for a good mystery? Keep looking - unless you consider a police chief, who consumes the donut evidence that had nothing to do with the crime, a mystery (Donut Theory). Looking for a space lark as good as Douglas Adams? Keep looking - this reviewer was one of three readers who read all but laughed maybe once at Adams' 'jokes'. Looking for a good Chandler noir comedy ("[Bleach Pastiche] wasn't a beautiful mess, she was just beautiful. Her mouth was so red I had to regard it through a welding mask... She once rubbed a sleep crumb out of her eye and when I studied it under a microscope I found it was a perfect miniature replica of an Alpine village" from Auto Erotica)? Getting closer.
You'll hear a lot of hoopla comparing Steve Aylett to great writers in the English language, but most of the comparisons don't hold water. Dick? Ballard? Nabokov? No, no, and no. Shall we compare the above example to Fitz James O'Brien's The Diamond Lens? Shall we compare it to a summer's day? No, we shan't. Which is just as well. So far as this reviewer can tell, Aylett is an original. Who wants to do what others have done better anyway?
The Crime Studio is a collection of brief yet witty stories concerning crime in our time in the fictional American city of Beerlight, where crime has become common if not trivial to the point of a character's blithe pursuit of why there isn't more (Interlude). Is Aylett another Brit mocking America? Say it ain't so, Joe. While it might have been more intriguing to examine his own backyard, at least Aylett's even-handed in his mockery. Moreover, mailbox bombs in America is as senseless as suicide bombs in the Middle East, so why not? If the denizens of Beerlight are any indication of the denizens in our world, no one's innocent but they'll cast stones in any case.
The only way to decide if Aylett is your kind of writer is to open to page one, paragraph one (from Solitary]: "Joe Solitary was a baby-faced guy with a sublime introversion and a deep self-destructive streak which endeared him to the denizens of Beerlight. Solitary got his name from a love of solitary confinement, which he said really got him into himself."
Aylett's characterisations consistently pique curiosity, reminiscent of Vonnegut at his best. The above examples are only a few among dozens of witty names and characterisations: "The power company paid Ben [Rictus] barely enough to keep him in codeine" or "Billy [Panacea] was wearing white dungarees and a bruise-blue jacket over a black T-shirt which said in bold white lettering 'The Connoisseur Of Sleep'. He looked like a million Mexican dollars. Sally [the Gat] was overcome with a protective desire to buy him a new wardrobe." In fact, the quotable quotes are too numerous to include here. If you buy The Crime Studio, this will be the reason why.
While other reviewers have dubbed this work as surreal, this reviewer contends it's less surreal than - or rather to be more specific in our abstractions - the consistent inverse square law of human behavioural reality. This is not the same thing as satire. Satire pokes fun at a particular people. This is not how the average human reasons (or so one would hope these are not the average person's motivations). The average Beerlight human, however, commits crime purposefully, seemingly to the good of its society. With the daily maiming, it's a wonder anyone's left alive.
One might argue against this theory, recasting the humour as parody that takes reality to its extremes or satire: "Because [Harpoon Specter] wore stolen garments and went around demanding money, everyone assumed he was a lawyer" (Harpoon Season). However, three sentences before illustrates and admits that the majority of humour relies on the absurd (or the inverse square): "His least successful shenanigan was to tell people unless they gave him what he wanted he'd sit down and break his own legs, then roll around shouting in accusation agony. Nobody obliged, partly because what he was threatening was an integral part of the average Beerlight cabaret act [my emphases]." The differentiating line is a fine one. One might argue that this is merely the extreme of suing people for their own stupid mistakes. Later, Specter becomes a lawyer (which is absurd without schooling) and argues that a burglar be let off on account that the burglar took care not to wake his victims. Again, opponents might compare this to the Texan who raped a woman while wearing a condom to protect her from an unwanted pregnancy. To compromise, I'll label Aylett's comedy somewhere between as an absurd parody of reality's extremes.
Why is this important to define? Not everyone's taste runs the same gamut, and some insist on the intellectual properties presumed by satire while others prefer the absurd, finding satire a game of intellectual superiority. Now you know you can look forward to both.
A lamentable loss to character development, although present in minute quantities on the story level since thematically the stories set out to prove little more than 'life sucks but what the hell,' is that the characters remain the same from story to story. Like a sitcom, the reader hits the reset button to find characters back in their predicaments without the human growth that comes from experience, good or bad. This may not weaken the stories individually, but as a whole, they could have been stronger - a Yoknapatawpha County of Crime.
While the characters constitute a motley menagerie of hooligans, the plots suffer from a little too much consistency in feel and tone. Normally this reviewer analyses each story; however, due to their similarities in structure, one story should suffice. One story is not weaker than another, but wittier. Harpoon Season may be the best parody, but the wittiest and most amusing in this humble reviewer's opinion was Block War. Eddie Slam hates his apartment and its tenants that resemble something out of Metropolis and drive him stir-crazy trapped inside with them. The feather that breaks Eddie's camel back is a poem written by the "Jurassic janitor Ivo Beak," who spent "all his time carving miniature figurines out of frozen snot. His face could only be done justice by the glare of a hurricane lamp and his DNA probably resembled popcorn. He was so amorphous Eddie could never determine what he was wearing." Eddie tries to rid the apartment by calling the cops, yelling fire (the tenants celebrate), setting off a bomb (which straightens the walls), letting loose poisonous snakes (the hungry tenants caramelise and eat them), releasing coal-gas to blow the top off the building but the gas falls instead of rising and blows Eddie up instead. In a fit of dramatic irony, Ivo buys the building, evicts the tenants and blows it up himself. Dissimilarly similar tragedies await the other denizens of Beerlight.
Whoever bought a Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller book for the ingenuity of their plots? Likewise, it takes the connoisseur of wit to appreciate Aylett. Taken in daily doses, the collection is well worth your purchase; cures obscure cancers of the appendix and will raise your IQ by 0.052 points.
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