Barefoot in the Head

”The city was open to the nomad.”

– Brian Aldiss, Barefoot in the Head

Brian Aldiss‘ Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (1969) represents the 1960’s New Wave of Science Fiction at it’s most extreme. It was originally published as a series of short stories in the late Sixties, beginning with ”Just Passing Through” (1967) in Impulse February 1967, edited by Harry Harrison, and the rest continuing New Worlds, then at the forefront of the British New Wave undetr the editorship of Michael Moorcock.

The story is set after a Kuwaiti arial attack on the West using psychedelic weapons which have contaminated the air and the water supply, leaving the population literally and permanently bombed out of their skulls.

Colin Charteris, a young Serb, veteran of a failed Resetlement camp in Italy, is on a journey to an England he knows only from the adventures of Simon Templar, alias “The Saint”, written by Leslie Charteris, after whom he has taken his name, when he begins to experience quasi-religious visions; he too has become contaminated. By the time he reaches Dover his perceptions and thought processes have become entirely dislocated; he begins to attract a rag-tag following of disciples, including a Rock group called The Dead Sea Sound, and sets out on a Messianic crusade back across Europe at the head of a motorcade in his bright red Banshee.

Although set in the then-near future, the novel is very much of its time: Charteris is a Communist, an atheist (then the official non-religion of Communist Serbia), and a follower the mystic and spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, and his pupil P. D. Ouspensky. Many of the novel’s tropes (psychedelia, sexual freedom, entropy and social decay, landscapes dominated by concrete architecture and motorways, a critical engagement with religion) were already central to the New Wave, though they were not usually taken to such extremes.

Norman Spinrad later explored a world in which everybody is tripping, all of the time, in his story ”No Direction Home” (the title comes from the Bob Dylan song).

The recurrent car-crash motif, and in particular the chapter ”Auto-Ancestral Fracture”, in which a deranged film-maker reconstructs the multi-car collision from which Charteris apparently stages his ”resurrection” prefigures the ”auto-erotic” concerns of J. G. Ballard‘s Crash. Throughout the novel the city-scape is used as a metaphor for the way the human mind has been reconfigured by its environment.

Verbal Transformation Effect

The most distinctive feature of the novel is its use of dense, punning and allusive language to covey a hallucinogenic sense of dislocation, which many have compared with that of  James Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake. It’s certainly not an easy book to read – even when compared to Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange or Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker!

Aldiss’s novel uses the Verbal Transformation Effect first identified by Chris Evans, et.al. in their paper ”Auditory ‘stabilized images’; fragmentation and distortion of words with repeated presentation” which Aldiss republished in his own collection of essays The Shape of further Things (1970).

In the garden the snow lies
Cozened by wall and hedge
Deep under winter’s sta-
bilizing hand

– Brian Aldiss, The Shape of Further Things (p.209)

Transforms into this:

In the gargle the snool eyes
Cousined by wall and heads
Deep under wither’s stay
Bilising hang hang hang

– Brian Aldiss, The Shape of Further Things (p.77)

Poetry and Polyphony

Approximately 60 pages of the novel are taken up by poems and song lyrics which compliment or comment upon the action of the novel, often providing a voice for the supporting characters. 

References

  • Aldiss, Brian (1970) The Shape of Further Things
  • Aldiss, Brian (1969) Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia
  • Ballard, J. G. (1973) Crash
  • barefootinthehead.org
  • Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
  • Charteris, Leslie (1928) Meet the Tiger (AKA The Saint Meets the Tiger)
  • Charteris, Leslie (1929) Enter the Saint
  • Charteris, Leslie (1930) The Last Hero
  • Clute, John (1975) ”I Say Begone! Atropaic Narcosis, I’m Going To Read The Damned Thing, Ha Ha” in Hilary Bailey (ed.) (1975) New Worlds # 8
  • Evans, Dr C. R., M. Longdon, E A Newman and B E Pay (1967) ”Auditory ‘stabilized images’; fragmentation and distortion of words with repeated presentation” in Aldiss, Brian (1970) The Shape of Further Things
  • Hoban, Russell (1980) Riddley Walker
  • Joyce, James (1939) Finnegan’s Wake
  • Sneyd, Steve (Not dated) Lining Up on the Precipice: – The Shape And Role Of Poetry In Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot In The Head
  • Spinrad, Norman (1975) No Direction Home

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