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Toxicology
Steve Aylett
Gollancz paperback £5.99

review by Patrick Hudson

This is a short book of short-short stories, 26 of them in its 131 pages, the longest being nine pages, the shortest just a single page. This brevity matches Steve Aylett's style exactly: dense prose packed tight with puns, absurdities and grotesque images. Each story is a like an acid flashback, a tiny glimpse at an urban landscape that is familiar and yet surrealistically transformed.
    It's hard to describe Aylett's stories concisely. Although each is brief, they are thick with jokes, pop culture references and wild asides. What unites these stories is a sharp satirical wit that can generate real outrage. In stories such as Gigantic - wherein the world's fly-tipped moral garbage is returned, or Repeater - a furious critique of the Criminal Justice Act - Aylett writes with exhilarating passion. When I read Gigantic (the opening story) on the tube, I would have been literally bowled over by the sheer rage of its climax had I not been seated.
   He backs up the moral outrage with a brilliant wit and a real talent for leaps of whimsy and clever puns. Some of the shorter stories are just jokes, really, such as the cunning plan of Ears, Goodbye and If Armstrong Had Been Interesting, a crescendo of increasingly bizarre things that Neil Armstrong could have done if he wasn't such a dull guy.
   His ability to craft brilliant one liners is cut off from any need for plot and character in The Bestiary, a set of amusing definitions of everyday words (assuming you use Garter Snake, Quetzlcoatl and Xylophone everyday) similar Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. He has a delightful, silly sense of humour, the mix of music hall and surrealism you can seen in the work of Spike Milligan, John Lennon or John Cooper Clarke, and like them he can tie it to a hard-hitting political point.
   A number of stories share the setting of the city of Beerlight, also the setting for some of his novels. These perverse crime stories combine the vicious black humour (and fascination with firearms) of Burroughs with the droll circumlocutions of Damon Runyon and the laconic cynicism of the hard-boiled detective story. Beerlight is a sort of Interzone, an absurd mirror-world of crime and punishment where a gangster can break the gangster code by becoming over-attached to his armed robbery mask (Tusk) or a gun can shoots bullets of pure crime (The Siri Gun).
   Aylett has a skill for vicious parody, displayed to great effect in the two Bertie Wooster parodies Dread Honour and Ballroom. As well as creating a pastiche the style and farcical plotting of the original, he adds a flash of black satire on the class system that the original Wooster stories represented with such adoration.
   While Aylett displays some SF trappings, he aims somewhat wider than the usual genre satires. Like Ballard or Moorcock, he occupies the fringes of both the mainstream and SF, following a tradition of satirical writing that takes in writers from Swift and Voltaire through to Angela Carter and Thomas Pynchon.
   Aylett has been building a reputation as a writer to watch, and this volume represents impressive evidence of his abilities. Four Walls Eight Windows originally published it in America in 1999, but this new version from Gollancz has several extra stories (Ballroom, Fiasco, Ears, Goodbye, Interview, Indicted To A Party and Black Triangle) that may make it worth picking up even if you have the original.
Toxicology by Steve Aylett
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