by Steve Aylett

Published by Four Walls Eight Windows

140 pages, 1999

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Take a Pill

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Reading the 20 stories collected in Toxicology is like swallowing a bottleful of multicolored, multitextured pills in one rapid gulp. A William Gibson pill, a Philip K. Dick pill, a William S. Burroughs pill, a J.G. Ballard pill, a Franz Kafka pill, a Brett Easton Ellis pill, a Raymond Chandler pill, a Harlan Ellison pill.... A different popper for each of the literati in Aylett's hip pantheon, distilling the essence of their work and reproducing their various effects in a dazzling cascade of prose little concerned with content or context.

Reading the 20 stories collected in Toxicology is like going through the 140-page blow-by-blow report of a high-stakes word association game between two artificial intelligences armed with exotic lexicons. The words are rich and pretty but betray no emotional experience.

Reading the 20 stories collected in Toxicology is like drinking frozen extra-pulp orange juice concentrate (without adding any water). It's a mindbursting overload of sensation, but too thick, gaudy and cold to really be enjoyed.

Reading the 20 stories collected in Toxicology is... frustrating. There is no question that Steve Aylett is a talented wordsmith; indeed many sentences in Toxicology are beautifully sculpted. There's also no question that Steve Aylett, to his credit, is very preoccupied with the art of the short story. The English-language short story market is dominated by the concerns and trappings of "storytelling": spinning a good yarn, character identification and obeying certain spoken and unspoken rules about what is and isn't a story. It's exhilarating to find a writer breaking the mold and exploring different avenues open to short prose fiction. Contrary to film, television or theater scripters, the prose author need not be worried about budget in order to realize an artistic statement. Prose is words on paper. The only limits should be imagination, skill, and talent. I so wanted to like Toxicology for its brash disregard of storytelling conventions. But I didn't. I found it a tedious, boring chore.

Why does Toxicology fail where some other daring collections didn't? Robert Silverberg's Beyond the Safe Zone, Michael Blumlein's The Brains of Rats, Ursula LeGuin's The Compass Rose, J.G. Ballard's The Terminal Beach and (more extravagantly) The Atrocity Exhibition, R.A. Lafferty's Nine Hundred Grandmothers all challenged the established, accepted forms of short fiction. However, all of these writers married their formal preoccupations and achievements with subtle, intense emotions and passionate, thrilling ideas. Their stories were disturbing, moving, and intellectually stimulating as well as being formal investigations into the art of the short story. In Toxicology, Aylett is satisfied with raising ideas instead of exploring them, simulating characters and contexts instead of creating them. His stories are like ornate frames with no painting in the middle.

Toxicology's emotional and contextual lacunae are well exemplified in "Jawbreaker." In this story, Aylett satirizes the bland, rote content of most everyday conversations by postulating that people regularly receive, in the mail, a script detailing every conversation they will have. At the end, the main character (who has not been receiving his daily scripts) delivers a speech that has all of the signs of heartfelt emotion, except it is utterly lacking in authenticity. His declaration of honest love is not supported by the story, what has been shown of his relationship with his lover, or the little we've learned of his personality. Similarly, despite Aylett's outré scenarios, the characters in all of Toxicology's stories behave and speak as if they were holding their scripts in one hand, and carefully checking to make sure they were always following their prepared -- and too often stilted -- reactions. Aylett fails to breathe life into his characters and tales. Toxicology ends up feeling like a stage where a rotating set of bloodless androids rehearse fictions that could be good -- but aren't quite. | December 1999


Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.