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Atom by Steve Aylett
(Phoenix House, 9.99, 137 pages, hardback; 12 October 2000.)

Set in the city of Beerlight, this short novel (almost a novella) represents an attempted hybridization of surrealism with the Hammett/Chandler hard-boiled detective tale. cover scanWhether there is actually any point in trying to marry two such antithetical modes -- surrealism deconstructs Story, the detective tale relies on Story -- is a question for another arena; the book, which is replete with conscious references to the Fathers of Surrealism (notably Magritte), must be taken on its own terms or not at all.

There's an explosion at the Brain Facility, and the preserved brain of Tony Curtis is stolen. Various characters are eager to get it or get it back, for reasons that are not much clarified when it proves the brain is not that of Tony Curtis at all, but that of Franz Kafka. Stirred into the mix is the eponymous private defective (not a typo) Taffy Atom, seemingly possessed of transnormal powers (although this may be illusion) along with his sidekicks Madison (a sexy spitfire) and Jed (a giant talking goldfish).

That is about as much of the plot as it's sensible to recount, because in many ways, like any good surrealist tale, this book doesn't actually have a plot, just the appearance of one, an appearance fostered by the use of the motifs of the hard-boiled PI story. The effect is rather like that of some of Jerome Charyn's wilder Secret Isaac novels (of which I was constantly reminded while reading Atom), only divorced yet one further step, or indeed several, from reality -- and from Story.

Well, if the quest in search of a plot is designedly futile, what of that quest itself, regardless of its lack of destination? In other words, while this novel may be a ride to nowhere, what's the ride like?

One of the motifs of the hard-boiled PI story is the deployment of firecracker one-liners, and here Aylett scores reasonably highly, with only a few of his squibs being damp. The opening phrase of the book gives a brilliant (and just about the only required) description of Beerlight, "The city sprawled like roadkill", although this is unfortunately overladen by the rest of that sentence: "spreading more with each new pressure." Other one-liners that leap from the page: "Smoking a cigar which seemed to have been carved from an expensive chair ..."; "Modesty's kinda useless if everyone agrees with you ..." There are plenty more, but their incandescence tends to be dimmed by the admixture of the occasional misfire: "Well you're a regular suppository o' wisdom ...", "Maddy was so deep he needed a U-boat to visit her" and so forth. Still, even Raymond Chandler produced a few dud one-liners, so one cannot be too critical.

But there was another extremely important component of the old PI story: characterization. No matter how much these writers and the venues in which they published may have been despised by most of the lit crew of their time, and to a great extent by some of that crew's successors, they displayed a mastery of characterization that has been rarely if at all matched in any other field of written storytelling -- indeed, that's what many of their one-liners were for.

By the nature of surrealism, in contrast, characterization is not really possible -- indeed, it could bring the whole surrealistic edifice tumbling down -- and this fact severely restricts Atom's function as an entertainment. While one or two of the individuals peopling his pages have singular speech patterns, which is characterization of a primitive sort, most are fairly indistinguishable from each other, to the extent that not only does one constantly have to remind oneself who they are when their names appear but also one has even on occasion to think twice about whether they're male or female. This again is an interesting surrealistic effect -- especially since, paradoxically, about the only character who's instantly identifiable on reappearance is Kitty Stickler, a nightclub singer of such extreme standardized beauty that she becomes effectively invisible -- but it sure as hell truncates Atom's ability to entertain except on the most superficial level.

One of the book's two cover-quotes from Michael Moorcock states: "This is toon-noir ... as on the button as tomorrow's news." "Toon-noir" is a very apt description, especially with reference to Gary Wolf's Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (1981), but the remainder serves, presumably unintentionally, as a pointer to Atom's problem as a novel: tomorrow's news hasn't happened yet, although much of it is beginning to coalesce. Similarly, Atom offers us, presumably not unintentionally, what can be interpreted as a cameo view of the coalescing process -- a soup of motifs swirling towards an integration that has not yet been and may never be, for inherent reasons, attained. To both extend and mix the metaphor, it is consequently hard to establish whether what's being served up is a hearty nutritious broth or a thin consommé.

Review by John Grant

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© John Grant 17 February 2001