Wednesday, October 25, 2017

the last book I read

Barefoot In The Head by Brian Aldiss.

It's the late 20th century, and there's been a war. So far so standardly post-apocalyptically dystopian, but this war was a bit different from your usual face-melting nuclear holocaust. Dubbed the Acid Head War, it culminated in some unnamed Middle Eastern state releasing bombs over parts of Europe that released aerosolised LSD (or some similar hallucinogen) into the air, thus sending the populations FREAKIN' MENTAL.

No immediate damage to infrastructure and all that stuff, but obviously people's capacity to use it in the designated responsible manner has deteriorated somewhat as they're all wandering around looking at the flashing psychedelic light show in their heads and going AAUUMMMNNNGGGHHH I CAN SEE THROUGH TIME. So there has been a general deterioration in society: rubbish piling up, lots of car wrecks on the roads, general breakdown of the rule of law, that sort of thing.

Into this bizarre world comes Colin Charteris. This is the name he has assumed as he drives up through Western Europe towards Britain, though in fact he is of Serbian origin (and therefore presumably originally called something else). We meet him making a stop-off at Metz; France was neutral during the Acid Head War and therefore escaped being directly targeted, though of course there's nothing in any international peace treaty to stop wafts of mind-bending vapour drifting over the German border or the English channel.

Charteris makes his way into Britain, and almost immediately starts to experience the effects of the gas (and presumably the tainted water supply): in the early stages this manifests itself as some weird time-dilation thing whereby he sees alternative versions of himself peeling away and taking other paths at points where decisions are made. He heads north, with no particular aim or destination in mind, and on the way picks up a rabble of assorted followers who see him as some sort of Messiah, for ill-defined reasons. He makes speeches at various impromptu rallies, as a result of which a larger group decides to head back south into Europe in pursuit of some equally nebulous final destination.

The group heads back through France and Charteris' Messiah status is cemented when his little sports car is destroyed in an accident but he miraculously survives! (It turns out he was travelling in another car at the time.) The group sets up camp and Charteris finds the time to impregnate his on/off girlfriend Angeline before they move on again into Germany and get themselves arrested, the Germans, stereotypically, having retained a bit more of a regard for The Rules even in the general lysergic haze.

The plot isn't really the point here, though, and just as well since it's pretty minimal: Charteris drives in a loopy (in every sense) route around Europe with a motley band of followers to no particular purpose until he winds up in Germany, where, we are invited to infer (though it's left very vague) that he is killed, thus confirming his status as a latter-day Jesus Christ. No, the point is the language in which the book is written: fairly linear at the beginning as we start off in relatively un-psychedelic France, but becoming weirder as the drugs get a grip and eventually ending up as a great fractured mess of puns, allusions, mashed-together words and general nonsense that seems pretty clearly intended to echo other experimental works like Finnegans Wake (which I should point out I have never read beyond the first couple of pages, and almost certainly never will).

The other very clear authorial echo here is of JG Ballard, in general for the post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying gardens and abandoned helipads, but in particular for the stuff about the fragmentation of time, and the odd fetish for car crashes - there's even a section where one of Charteris' disciples re-enacts Charteris' spectacular crash for the purposes of filming it, a scene that is mirrored almost exactly in Ballard's own Crash. I say "echo" but it's important to be clear about the chronology here: Barefoot In The Head was published in 1969, Crash in 1973. That said, much of Crash is an expansion and re-working of some ideas from 1969's The Atrocity Exhibition, so it's unclear who thought of it first or whether any cross-pollination of ideas was involved. The thing that's unique to this book is the interludes featuring fragments of poetry and songs that sit between the chapters. Some of these are no more than a couple of lines but do actually serve to break up the fearsome density of the prose, like a refreshing mouthful of wine between courses.

I've read a few other books by Brian Aldiss, most notably the epic Helliconia trilogy (now apparently available as one colossal 1300-page volume) but also Greybeard and probably a couple of others. All are good, but none of them are anything like this. To be honest, while Barefoot In The Head is a fascinating and brave genre experiment I'm not sure it really works. The best approach is just to luxuriate in the richness and imaginative sweep of the language and try to let the meaning seep in by osmosis - you can be reassured that fuck all actually happens anyway, so if a few passages are impenetrably baffling you probably won't miss anything crucial.

But, as I've said before, a bit of bafflement is good to keep the brain supple. And, moreover, having had this book sitting unread on my shelves for probably 25 years since I picked up a copy for (if the scrawl on the cover is to be believed) the princely sum of 15p it's nice to finally knock it on the head.

It turns out, completely coincidentally, that Aldiss narrowly avoided being another victim of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut, having died on 19th August this year. I think I missed that at the time, so I didn't know he was dead until after I'd started this book. Rest assured that if he had been still alive he would have been on borrowed time anyway once I'd finished it.

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