Steve Aylett promises a lot in the video introduction to his most recent book Heart Of The Original. In its pages, we’re told, we’ll “discover why the same idea is repeatedly hailed as a breakthrough, why obvious outcomes are met with surprise, why almost any situation is improved by a berserking hen, why the best way to get into something is to think of it as mischief, and how you can locate new ideas by thinking spatially.”
It all sounds terribly interesting, and the questions he poses are ones that I certainly want answers to. Fortunately for me, the book does provide these answers… albeit in a somewhat more woolly and hand-wavey way than I was hoping. The blurb and description make this tome sound like a relatively serious, well-researched exploration of human psychology, with particular attention paid to the ways in which we think about ideas. Alas, it is not – instead Heart Of The Original is an exceptionally well-written and imaginative rant. This book is endlessly linguistically adventurous, and its pages are heaped with surrealism and wit… but it is a rant nonetheless.
Any fans of Aylett will be familiar with his style. A mix of Douglas Adams and Chuck Palahniuk (although I’m sure Aylett himself would baulk at being described as such), he is furiously inventive and amusing, laying down pages that are alternately satirical, surreal, insightful and just plain strange. He has a particular gift for the apt simile. Turns of phrase such as “strange as a giraffe” or “indigestible as a helicopter” leap out from almost every fresh page. Aylett’s playful use of language alone was enough to keep me reading well past bedtime.
As much as I enjoyed Heart Of The Original, however, I disagreed with it completely. Aylett is cynical about other writers and artists, deriding the majority as passionless, imagination-less drones who are only capable of spouting ad nauseum a remix of all the material they have read before. He denies the value of building a canon, of reworking, of remixing, of creating something influenced by what has come before. The only originality that seems of value to Aylett is that which comes wrapped in a kind of dream-like mysticism. He writes at length about “real” creativity and “true” originality – concepts which some might argue don’t actually exist.
It’s ironic that the brief note from the publishers at the back of the book is quite keen to give credit to their influences. Unbound publish books in a fairly-unusual crowdsourced fashion, the idea for which they trace back as far as Samuel Johnson. Heart Of The Original, therefore, would not exist in its present form without its predecessors and its influences – even the font in which the book is set has a history that includes much inheritance and borrowing.
The more interesting elements of the book – an exploration of why new ideas are often unwelcome for example – are touched upon only lightly, and left behind with speed. It is, overall, light on fact and heavy on style. But then, it’s also very much a book that’s not supposed to be taken as deadly serious. It is Aylett’s own personal mad rage against the world, and when taken with that in mind it’s a deeply entertaining one. It may not do everything it promises in the introduction, but what it does do it does with flair and humour. Whether you agree with its central argument or not, the book is bound to spark something.