When Bill Ectric first emailed to ask me if I was interested in contributing an essay to a Steve Aylett nonfiction tribute anthology / festschrift he was editing, I knew immediately that I would a) enthusiastically accept his offer, since Aylett is one of my favorite writers, and b) write about the influence of The Fall–a mutual favorite band–on Aylett’s work.
Now that Bill’s excellent Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology (which is co-edited by D. Harlan Wilson, and which includes pieces from such literary luminaries as Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock) has just been published, I’m proud to present the opening two paragraphs of my essay, “The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett.” Anyone interested in satire, cult fiction, and cult music should check out the book! (Tony Lee and John Oakes’ contributions are particularly good, too.)
The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett
“The difference between you and us is that we have brains”
–From “Intro” [Totale’s Turns] by The Fall
When we first encounter a writer as original as Steve Aylett, or as original as the character Jeff Lint in Aylett’s eponymous novel, it seems as though we cannot help but attempt to territorialize that writer’s imagination, to annex it to what we already know and understand. For example, when Lint‘s laziest reviewers noticed the novel’s superficial parallels and allusions to the life of Philip K. Dick, they automatically assumed it was intended as a roman à clef and proceeded to criticize it on this basis…notwithstanding Aylett’s assertions to the contrary in several interviews. (To be fair, the book may have been marketed misleadingly in this regard.)
But while Jeff Lint was not intended to be a thinly-disguised Philip K. Dick, I do think Aylett may have had other models and analogues in mind—namely, Mark E. Smith (or as fans call him, MES), the lead singer, lyricist, and sole constant member of that British post-punk institution, The Fall. I certainly do not mean to suggest that Lint was implicitly based upon MES’s colorful life, only to assert that his contrarian persona and distinctive approach to cultural criticism have strongly informed the satirical work of Steve Aylett and, by extension, that of Jeff Lint. My intention in writing this essay is thus not to find and catalogue every instance in Aylett’s fiction where he alludes to The Fall (although as an avowed fan, Aylett places many such references throughout his oeuvre), but rather to delineate and compare the satirical currents in MES and Aylett’s idiosyncratic bodies of work.
The world of art needs people like Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett (or, for that matter, like Jeff Lint) to keep it honest, to save it from complacency. While their idiosyncratic worlds may initially seem frightening to the uninitiated, their audience knows that they are also wonderful. I think I can speak for all of Aylett’s fans when I say that we are profoundly grateful for the presence of his books in our lives. At its best, satire is as constructive of imaginative possibilities as it is destructive of established orders; it teaches us how we can “step sideways” from the world, as Mark E. Smith once put it. Underneath the grotesquerie, satire can represent the fraught, beleaguered defense of what is best in us: reason and creativity and humor, friendship and kindness and love: the ideals and practices that constitute sanity itself.