In his 1984 essay “On Reading to Oneself,” William Gass admires a sentence by Gertrude Stein: “It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident.”
“If, when we say we understand something someone’s said, we mean that we can rephrase the matter, put it in other words (and we frequently do mean this), then Gertrude Stein’s critics may be right: you can’t understand such a sentence,” Gass writes. But this is exactly why he loves that particular sentence: “It cannot be replaced by another. It cannot be translated without a complete loss of its very special effect.”
He goes further – it’s William Gass, it’s a great essay. I happened to be reading it when my copy of Steve Aylett’s new book, Heart of the Original, arrived in the mail, and it occurred to me that the Gass-on-Stein paragraph ties in nicely with what Aylett is up to. It also provides a handy test: if you’re the type to find more delight than bafflement in the very special effect of the Stein sentence and Gass’s examination of it, you are probably going to love Aylett’s book.
Heart of the Original is part manifesto, part satire and part encouragement for those among us who tend toward despair at the state of the creative universe. The book demands a certain mental restlessness, but its premise is simple: it’s a rallying cry for originality, “the making of a thing which has not been in the world previously” – a thing that cannot be replaced, cannot be translated without a loss.
Aylett’s central observation is that while everyone says they love originality, most of us when confronted with it feel discomfort. We don’t know what to do with something truly original; it’s alien. By definition, we’ve never seen anything like it before; we have no existing category in which to file it, so we reject it.
Lucky us, we live in an age of pastiche - the sequel and the remake and the reboot - Jane Austin and zombies, Spidermen ad nauseam. Marketing wisdom tells us that the best way to sell something to the public is to promise them it’ll be exactly like the last thing they enjoyed. In our art and entertainment, collectively, we like a safe bet. It’s easier on the brain, and we have enough to worry about already. Aylett identifies this as our “not-so-secret desire to be robotic and dispense with the complication of variety.”
This atmosphere has a dulling effect on the creative instinct; why should an artist try to make something genuinely new when anyone can just slap a misattributed quote onto a photo of a kitten or a sunset and be celebrated as an internet genius? It’s discouraging.
Fittingly, Heart itself is difficult to understand in the same way as that Gertrude Stein sentence: it can’t easily be rephrased or translated. Aylett’s fiction is built of intensely compact high-octane sentences, full of ideas and no wasted words; early in his career he made promo stickers that said “AYLETT SAVES...TIME.” His novels and stories are short and dense. Heart is equally if not more so, but midway through the book he offers readers a key: “Write three sentences and remove the middle one,” he advises; “often the deleted sentence is implied by the remaining material.” Who knows if that’s literally the way he wrote Heart, but it could be; he’s certainly removed all connective tissue. His sentences hurry along, the tone ranging from urgent to impatient, at times creating the impression that Aylett doesn’t quite expect anyone else to follow – or, more optimistically, maybe he hopes those he’s speaking to will be able to catch up. Observations and dismantlings come pell-mell one after the other, occasionally interspersed with rampaging hens (Aylett loves hens). The distance between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next often feels like a Battlestar Galactica space-jump. Strap in and hope you have the right coordinates. “A life or text in which every link is spelled out will be expunged of mischief, leaving no task to the mind,” Aylett writes. No worries here.
Hopefully that doesn’t make it sound like the book is all work and no play. Aylett is always fun to read. His scorn for those he considers ripoff artists is pure and sincere, but he’s smart enough to play it mostly for laughs. He goes off, but he never sounds like a crank. And he’s equally intense when he’s writing about people he thinks are genuinely innovative. An undercurrent of exhaustion peeks through now and then, a perfectly rational if quiet voice asking why bother making something original, what is the damn point if nobody wants it?, but this is balanced by the satisfying thought that maybe irritating the masses is reason enough. The cumulative effect of the book is heartening – icewater in the face, and someone yelling, What are you waiting for?