by Steve Aylett
(Four Walls Eight Windows) $14.95
STEVE AYLETT'S novel Atom is sort of like The Maltese Falcon meets Duck Soup, set in the world of Blade Runner, and narrated with cinematic flair in a prose that is the bastard child of Nabokov, Pynchon, and Oscar Wilde. This might seem like way too many references (not to mention mixed metaphors) with which to burden one short book, but Aylett's dense, hilarious writing deserves no less. Atom, like Aylett's earlier novels Slaughtermatic and The Inflatable Volunteer, is a gorgeously deviant text. It narrates the most bizarre events with a delirious clarity. It sops up the most diverse pieces of cultural flotsam and jetsam, recombining them into startling new shapes. The book's wild inventiveness is modulated by a dryly sarcastic tone. This is mutant fiction for the new millennium.
Okay. I guess you could call Atom a parodic, hard-boiled detective novel, set in the cyberfuturistic city of Beerlight, where crime is indistinguishable from performance art and everyone speaks in puns and metaphysical conundrums. The wisecracking "private defective" Taffy Atom, his cooler-than-ice female partner Madison Drowner, and their sidekick Jed Helms, who just happens to be a talking carnivorous fish, are drawn into a web of conspiracy and deceit involving vicious gangsters, demented hit men, corrupt cops, and even the mayor and the president. It all starts when the petty crook Harry Fiasco steals Franz Kafka's cryogenically preserved brain from the facility where it was being kept in storage. Eventually we learn that a shady character called the Candyman, something like Sidney Greenstreet on acid, wants to enlist Kafka's expertise in his project of creating human/insect hybrids. But the insects have their own thoughts in this matter, and so does crime boss Eddie Thermidor. And Chief of Police Henry Blince can't resist getting involved, excited by the prospect of sending a few more hapless suckers to the electric chair. Meanwhile, the president is planning a visit to Beerlight, hoping to draw attention away from accusations that he has had sex with a dog, a lizard, and a squid, among other animals.... Are you still with me?
Atom is actually plotted as tightly and carefully as the most polished detective novel. Yet it swamps the reader with such a deluge of information overload that this is nearly impossible to notice on a first reading. Aylett lets loose with a relentless barrage of cheerfully chaotic detail. The book crackles with an acerbic wit. Blink and you might miss an important plot twist, a brilliant joke, or a crucial metaphor. Such manic exuberance makes a welcome contrast to the minimalist restraint of much recent Anglo-American fiction. All this is not to imply that Aylett's prose is in any sense lush. Rather, it is curt and telegraphic, short words aligned in clear, crisp sentences. Atom is thick with made-up slang (brains are referred to as"squashers"), off-the-wall metaphors (Drowner's gun lab is said to resemble "an alien's bathroom," as if anyone knew what that was like), and a kind of schematic, abstracted tough-guy talk. Many sentences skewer the clichés of hard-boiled fiction: "The city sprawled like roadkill, spreading more with each new pressure." Other times, Aylett's language congeals into pithy, offbeat aphorisms whose tone is ominous, though their precise significance remains obscure: "Organized religion added Jesus to the food groups. The past is killed off by American marksmen."
Atom is as dense with wonderfully strange ideas as it is with brilliantly twisted sentences. For instance, much of the book's humor involves abstruse 'smart' weapons, science-fictional constructs far beyond anything yet imagined in the Pentagon. There's the "loop mine," which puts its victim into a time warp, forced to repeat the same two hours over and over. There are guns whose bullets freeze people into living statues, or force them to embarrass themselves by speaking the truth in public. Best of all, there's the "Syndication bomb." When this device explodes, it converts the scene of impact into "a living Updike novel," devoid of any subtext except for the most banal and boring. Things become so bland and obvious that all feuds, threats, and devious intentions are entirely forgotten. This allows Atom and Drowner to escape from the gangsters who, just a moment before, were about to kill them.
Near the end of Atom, Kafka's brain is transplanted into a new body and restored to consciousness. The tormented author immediately complains that Beerlight is not at all like the America he imagined in his fiction. But of course, society's frustration of our hopes and expectations is one of the things that Kafka's work is all about. Aylett presents a similarly discordant vision of the future. Atom perturbs our categories and habits of thought, no matter which way we take it: as an over-the-top satire, a gleeful rollercoaster ride through a thoroughly postmodern Hell, or a rigorous exercise in the poetics of some other planet than our own.