‘clusterbusting hallucinations’: Speed in Steve Aylett’s Bigot Hall

Robert Kiely


With the speed we don’t need

in our vision we visit the closest

city to total spirit, as awkward and

as contingent as patriotism I eat

the only book it lets me have.[1]


Speed engenders the unexpected. It is often considered a pleasure in and of itself, or a drug, an intensifier. It is difficult to read the work of Steve Aylett without some level of bewilderment – this work puts us on the alert, strains our nerves. This prose is uncompromisingly fast – the rapidity exceeds our ratiocination, and in what follows I want to think about how his texts figure their highly self-conscious speed. One of the primary methods for doing so is to approach it negatively, by lambasting other novelists for being slow – in Atom (2000) the hapless victim is John Updike.[2] Ernest Hemingway comes in for a similar berating in Bigot Hall (1995), which I will subject to some analysis. When these texts complain about slowness, they seem to equate originality with speed and volume of content. Aylett’s books are baroque in their density, speed, and finely crafted detail; they are overcrowded, they dazzle and distort rather than producing a coherent picture of their narrative world – and this is one of their unique selling points.

Before going any further, I want to disambiguate speed into three categories: the first is speed of plot, the second speed of narrative delivery, the third speed of reading. The first and second, I think, work in tandem in Aylett, and I will consider the third near my conclusion.

Kathryn Hume, in her analysis of narrative speed, distinguishes three means of speeding-up a narrative, all of which are used in conjunction:

1. Multiplying the units (character, plot elements, etc.: in a word, content)

2. Subtraction, i.e. subtraction of linking-material; if you multiply elements but explain to the point of tedium their logical or sequential connection, the speed will, if anything, slow down

3. Departing from “consensus reality into fantasmagoria,” which is largely a side-effect of point 2; things seem anomalous because they are not explained or connected logically, since explaining everything in detail, endlessly clarifying, would slow the pace.[3]

Aylett’s prose is no exception. Very rarely does he clarify or paraphrase, and each sentence can feel so far removed from the last that they seem to be non-sequiturs. The content is there, and it is plain to see; these are not conventionally difficult texts. They simply deliver their content at rip-roaring speed. In Aylett’s texts the narrative is “being accelerated beyond some safe comprehension limit” – his sentences have an imposingly large bandwidth, and they come thick and fast, like a standup-routine of one-liners delivered at the pace of Beckett’s Not I.[4] Think Groucho Marx running circles around you, the straight-man. If Aylett’s default speed is fast for the average reader, he is rightly proud of it:

my fiction delivers quickly. A novel’s-worth can be delivered in a sentence, and then (if everything’s working) I can move on to delivering another novel’s-worth in the next sentence, and so on. A book should be worth it. The old cyberpunks used to assess each other on how much could be delivered with the fewest words (without resorting to academic code/language). I like compression.[5]

Phoenix, 2000

Bigot Hall is a memoir of a gothic childhood with shades of the Addams family, Flann O’Brien (of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman particularly), of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and countless more.[6] The book ends in a kind of blue-screen-error-message when the protagonist confronts a book named Bigot Hall and encounters a storm of intertextual flux. In chapter ‘SO WHAT,’ Adrienne finds that “déjà vu could be induced by arranging to have a condescending moron tell her something she already knew.”[7] Déjà vu is the strong sensation that the event currently being experienced has been experienced in the past, whether it has actually happened or not. Adrienne seems to have such a Schopenhauerian excess of cognition that such experiences allow her to visit other “etheric bubbles” of “timespace” to compensate for cliché, incredibly dull repetition, and any mansplaining administered to her in her own timestream. Ergo, in typically speedy-Aylett-logic, “[i]f several hundred déjà vu experiences were lined up in a row and experienced as a seamless stream it would be akin to a clusterbusting hallucination, whole months of wasted time would be given back to us in a single hit.”[8] If déjà vu here is essentially that which seems to repeat something which has gone before, but is, in fact, new, it is also paradoxically the source of ‘clusterbusting hallucinations’ which Adrienne and the nameless anti-hero get in compensation. Aylett zips past an implicit analogy, déjà vu and cliché all blurred from the reader’s passenger window.

Now, this passage’s concern with déjà vu is linked to slow, repetitive narrative, exemplified in the novel by Hemingway:

I happened upon a Hemingway volume in the reading room and found it was perfect. At no point was there the risk of being jarred back into realtime by a new idea. […] Some of the ideas went beyond the obvious into a kind of homicidal vacuum. I saw a riotous play of lights on my skullwall as the crucifying boredom ricocheted me out of the timestream.[9]

The prose waxes lyrical as they seem to fly together outside of the universe itself: “The universe opened like a flower, and we were gone. A billion miles below, the self-evident scrapped and sizzled like incinerating trash.”[10] The nameless anti-hero and Adrienne have said “Goodbye to a world of re-run conversation and louts who swear blind that sand is yellow.”[11] This is life at a different level of intensity to the rest. If Hemingway is boring, and the world is full of truisms, Aylett amply compensates. As theatre-maker and poet Chris Goode puts it in ‘An introduction to speed-reading’:

Reading myths, #3: “All parts of a book are of equal value.” Quasi-mystical bullshine. Do not read the parts in Latin. Do not read the page numbers. Do not read the bit where she’s telling him how she’s been hurt before and she can’t go through that again.[12]

Adrienne and the nameless protagonist take this kind of speed-reading to be a mode of living. They literally do skip over the bits of life in which she’s telling him how she’s been hurt before and she can’t go through that again, because it is clichéd dribble. (But is this adequate to life? Perhaps not.) Adrienne skips through the boring bits of life, she lives life as a speed-reader reads books. That is what Aylett asks of us.

This demand is so direct that it might be best to swerve for a moment, to take a look at Hemingway’s texts. Aylett says that the “only Hemingway I could stick with was A Moveable Feast, which is a beautifully atmospheric thing.”[13] Although atmospheric, Hemingway’s works are nonetheless wordy and repetitive; this might be positively phrased by emphasizing the lyrical sense of refrains in his text. Below is an extract from ‘A Good Café on the Place St-Michel’ in A Moveable Feast:

It was either six or eight flights up to the top floor and it was very cold and I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped packets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-dried lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that would warm the room. So I went to the far side of the street to look up at the roof in the rain and see if any chimneys were going, and how the smoke blew. There was no smoke and I thought about how the chimney would be cold and might not draw and of the room possibly filling with smoke, and the fuel wasted, and the money gone with it, and walked on in the rain. I walked down past the lycee Henri quatre and the ancient church of St-Etienne-du-mont and the windswept place du pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the boulevard St-Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the boulevard St-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the place St-Michel.
It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.[14]

This is not a text from which “everything wordy and boring has been excised”[15]– that might run as follows: ‘Unsure whether to light fire, poor. I go to the café at Place St-Michel (nice place) and order shit and write.’ Hemingway is slow, methodical (especially when removing clothes), and adjective heavy. The I is pervasive.

Kathryn Hume also ponders the effects of speed and points out that speed, like channel surfing, can produce irritation, bewilderment, or exhilaration.[16] It is also a centrifuge, separating “hip” readers from “squares,” more likely to attract young readers.[17] Hume also suggests that speed frequently correlates to literary high spirits,[18] and the politics of speed seem radical, rebellious, and critical of rationality.[19] But there is a danger in identifying speed too neatly with pleasure, originality, or rebelliousness. Hume makes this mistake in her first consideration of the topic, claiming that “the politics of narrative speed seems to be radical or at any rate rebellious, with the authors being the rebels.”[20] Yet, if “the accumulation over time of authors and texts like these create familiarity, even comfort with the unstructured world,” perhaps all is not so positive.[21] The tediously painstaking and slow thinking that might be required to solve serious problems is something that fiction can help us to exercise, as in, say, Beckett’s Watt.[22]  Hume’s sample texts all attack some form of authority, but in the collaboration with Baetens, they both acknowledge that while “overall the politics of speed seem radical, rebellious, and critical of rationality”, no such neat identification of politics with form is possible:[23]

artistic and narrative innovation and radicalism are not based on rapidity (as we tend to believe today) or on slowness (as we used to believe some decades ago), but rather oppose the accepted mainstream narrative speed, (a kind of ‘average rhythm,’ neither too fast nor too slow and having an accepted balance between fast and slow fragments). We suggest that various forms of counternarrative are characterized by noncanonical ways of manipulating rhythm that end up disturbing, either by slowing down or speeding up, the mainstream average rhythm. This average, of course, has no extrahistorical essence: it consists of a historically moving norm.[24]

Contra the brief attacks on Updike and Hemingway (which I am perhaps unwarrantedly expounding on), artistic and narrative innovation are not necessarily linked to rapidity, but simply oppose the accepted mainstream narrative speed: the ‘average rhythm’ of prose that is neither too fast nor too slow. Of course, Aylett’s work has to return to a slower pace at times. Kant’s pigeon, feeling the resistance of the air, imagines that in a perfect vacuum flight would be easier; both Bigot Hall and the pigeon imagine that you can have speed in a pure form without the friction of repetition, when such resistance is what makes flight possible. Bigot Hall has to slow down itself sometimes, although it is so rare that it almost comes as a welcome relief, or becomes newly jarring: “They were looking horribly familiar – because they were the same ones as before. It was the same circus.”[25] This is a rare example of semi-paraphrase from one sentence to the next. But the point remains: speed does not always equate to originality.

In an Inception-like sequence, the nameless anti-hero of Bigot Hall and Adrienne arrange to meet in a shared dream, then in dreams-within-dreams, each with an increase in time-condensation.[26] The nameless anti-hero gets confused about what dream-level he is at, and spends a lot of time damaging himself.[27] When he eventually wakes, Adrienne shows him how much time they have “wasted” in their dream-levels: “She showed me the bedside clock. We had been asleep nearly two minutes.”[28] Aylett’s prose is the timesaving hallucination that packs a month into a second.

Is it bad to want fast humour, fast books, to want it now? Not in and of itself. Aylett himself can appreciate slow books, even if he lambasts them, as his description of Hemingway as “beautifully atmospheric” shows – critique is true kinship. The Principles of Scientific Management seeped into the world of literature long ago. Life is short, therefore rich and condensed is often for the best – but since life is short, try some slowness too. For all his narrator’s grumblings, they do not ask for their speed to be raised to the level of a standard. If other authors sped up, Aylett would lose his idiosyncrasy, though this would be nonetheless an improvement to the world of letters. Until our abstracted-average-pace increases, Aylett is likely to remain a strangely invigorating counterpoint to the status-quo. Fast and steady wins the race every time.

This is fast narrative, but I wonder if it doesn’t encourage a paradoxically slow reading, as the reader must pause, reread, and unfold Aylett’s tightly packed sentences. In contrast to slow narrative, a speedy text becomes a space for the reader to enter and make logical connections, something to unfurl and unpack. But I would suggest that, like Adrienne, we are invited to speed-read books and life, we are asked to live at a different level of intensity. Poet and critic Keston Sutherland has noted that: “Speed-reading is anti-philological. It is the avoidance, and perhaps even the refutation, of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ that philology sought to overcome through patient and repeated study of its texts.”[29] Can Aylett’s texts endure sustained scrutiny of the philological kind? I’m not sure that the use of déjà vu in Bigot Hall stands up to such a reading, although other aspects of this work, or others, may well reward such labour. It needs to be in movement – the use of the terms seems slightly incongruous unless it is read at speed – if we stop here, the term déjà vu falls on its side – like a bicycle, it has to keep moving. This is Clark Coolidge on Jack Kerouac:

Kerouac said, ‘Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time.’ And I can’t resist putting next to that my favorite statement by Maurice Blanchot: ‘One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing.’ And that’s not a paradox.
So here’s Kerouac whizzing along and picking up and there’s something special too about what you pick up when you’re moving fast, about the kind of attention that you can develop.
From one of my notebooks: The goo risen up into clacking, statement. States allover always on the rise. You go past poles and hear voices turning like a wrist over what did she talk over what did you hope to do. Writing in the cleft between known-day/memory and the speeding spaces shafting on and out: What will happen?
A matter of momentum. And I get almost a mystical feeling that if you can get to a sort of momentum that works in waves, rhythmic waves, you can pick up things that you might not otherwise even sense.[30]

For Coolidge, we must pick up the meaning of Kerouac’s writing in its flow, in the speed it asks to be read at. It is a matter of momentum. The term déjà vu is employed for its immediate momentary impression, hard up against one another. It is used in an idiosyncratic, poetic way, which asks that the term be stretched and modified to fit the task at hand. Similarly, the “etheric bubbles” are mysterious in origin, but have to be grasped quickly and dimly, in their very flippancy. (I do not necessarily wish to invoke the negative connotations of the flippant as the impertinently voluble, but as that which is flexible, limber, has a lightness of touch, a nimble pliancy.) Trying to grip concepts while moving at speed is difficult, but when we slow down, the concepts no longer seem fit for purpose.

To return to Sutherland:

I mean by speed-reading a new and particular kind of hermeneutics, made for the first time valuable by some new work now being written in English. These texts demand to be read at speed. They self-falsify in the circle of hermeneutic patience: the more slowly and hesitantly they are read, the less of them is really there for the reader. The anticipated objections – that such texts cease to be interesting as soon as we scrutinize them attentively, and that they masquerade beneath the blur of their unfixed syntax as a kind of intelligence that can’t actually be demonstrated through patient exposition – are both valid and obtuse.[31]

Aylett’s prose is fast and it asks to be read fast, for its force to be felt in this quickness of blood, for you to ‘get it’ in an almost mystical sense, as Coolidge puts it. The speed itself flings us into new etheric time-bubbles. But it is also worth remarking that while Aylett is fast, he is anything but fragmented – his themes are immense and resurgent, from the failing of civilization (Rebel at the End of Time, Novahead), to originality and creativity, and its opposition in the endless stupidity of the police (cf. Eddie Gamete and Henry Blince). This is speed we need, these are books we should all have, to counteract the regurgitated reposts we are fed by mainstream publishing – I may be waxing into a mere advert here. I also think that this is not a regurgitation of some horrendous avant-garde or modernist power stance. “Don’t understand me too quickly – think about it”.[32]

NOTE: This essay is forthcoming in the book To Unearth the Bruises Underground: The Fanatical Oeuvre of Steve Aylett, ed. D. Harlan Wilson, Bill Ectric (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2014). You can also check out Aylett’s latest project at UNBOUND.

Image credit: Leonardo Aguiar (via Creative Commons)


[1] Tomas Weber, ‘Auscultation,’ An Official Word from Me out of Uniform (Tokyo: Tipped Press, 2012), unpaginated.

[2] “Like most flux technology, the Syndication bomb hinged on a cheap but ingenious trick. Rather than actually stripping the subtext from the blast site it converted the wave range into a living Updike novel, the subtext containing information everyone already knew – the end result was a shallow reality in which every move was a statement of the obvious.” Steve Aylett, Atom (London: Phoenix, 2000), 54.

[3] Kathryn Hume, ‘Narrative Speed in Contemporary Fiction,’ Narrative 13.2 (2005): 105-124: 107, 111, 112.

[4] Hume, 106.

[5] Correspondence.

[6] Steve Aylett, Bigot Hall: A gothic childhood (London: Indigo, 2000), 104.

[7] Bigot Hall, 29.

[8] Bigot Hall, 29.

[9] Bigot Hall, 30.

[10] Bigot Hall, 31.

[11] Bigot Hall, 143.

[12] Chris Goode, ‘An introduction to speed-reading.’ QUID 15 (2005): 6-8: 7.

[13] Correspondence.

[14] Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Good Café on the Place St-Michel,’ A Moveable Feast (London: Arrow, 2004), 1-5: 2-3.

[15] Hume, 120.

[16] Hume, 119.

[17] Hume, 120.

[18] Hume, 122.

[19] Hume, 122. Jan Baetens, and Kathryn Hume, ‘Speed, Rhythm, Movement: A Dialogue on K. Hume’s Article “Narrative Speed,”’ Narrative 14.3 (2006): 349-355: 350.

[20] Hume, 107.

[21] Hume, 122.

[22] Beckett is “the most important inaugurator of a mode of aesthetic defection from speed” (Steven Connor, ‘Slow Going,’ The Yearbook of English Studies 30 (2000): 153-165: 155). The contemporary poet Brooks Johnson has wondered if “[i]n a fragmented, jump-cutted and neurologically damaged culture, we don’t need a flitting and glancing poetry, but one that can maintain its focus and does not flinch.” (Linh Dinh, ‘A Conversation with Brooks Johnson,’ April 26 2012, Harriet: A Poetry Blog, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/a-conversation-with-brooks-johnson/, accessed 15th September 2013) For poetry read prose, or anything, really.

[23] Hume’s initial discussion of narrative speed focuses on William S. Burroughs’s Ticket that Exploded, Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Darius James’ Negrophobia, Po Bronson’s Bombardiers, Robert Coover’s John’s Wife, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, Ishmael Reed’s Terrible Twos and Terrible Threes, and Fran Ross’s Oreo (107). Baetens and Hume, 350.

[24] Baetens and Hume, 354.

[25] Bigot Hall, 39.

[26] Bigot Hall, 125

[27] Bigot Hall, 126.

[28] Bigot Hall, 127.

[29] Keston Sutherland, ‘Four Theses on Speed (from an ongoing series),’ QUID 12 (2004), 38-41: 40.

[30] Clark Coolidge, ‘Kerouac,’ 1995,  http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/kerouac-per-coolidge.html. Web 13th Sept 2013.

[31] Sutherland, 40-1. I have replaced “poetry” and “poems” with different terms.

[32] Steve Aylett, ‘Specter’s Way,’ Smithereens (Scar Garden Press, 2010): 108-118: 110.