[This article originally published in The Guardian, May 2003]
Slipstream does not define a category, but suggests an approach, an attitude, an interest or obsession with thinking the unthinkable or doing the undoable. Slipstream can be visionary, unreliable, odd or metaphysical. It’s not magical realism: it’s a larger concept that contains magical realism. Some familiar recent slipstream examples: Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the films Memento or Being John Malkovich, the opera Jerry Springer. Other novelists who have from time to time carried the slipstream torch include Anthony Burgess, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Banville, John Fowles, Paul Auster and Dino Buzatti.
1. The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Borges’s work: in the last 30 years he has influenced every writer who is any good, as well as many film-makers and artists. Without Borges there would probably be no slipstream, or no proper understanding of it, and modern fiction would be a much poorer thing. Every story by Borges is a miniature cultural source-book.
2. Crash by JG Ballard
This is Ballard’s most interesting novel, although his consistently best work is found in his short story collections, notably The Terminal Beach and The Voices of Time. Ballard has made the world of inner space – that neural zone between outer reality and subjective perception – his own. On one level, Crash is an absurd black comedy about the allegedly pornographic implications of car crashes. On another it is a stunning metaphor for the way man interfaces with machines and becomes sexualised by them. You don’t believe that? Ballard probably won’t convince you, but the M25 will never seem the same again.
3. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
British slipstream can be found in the work of Angela Carter, and this novel, originally published as a modern fantasy, is probably her most approachable, yet it is also among her most mysterious. With Carter’s work you always felt there was a personal agenda, and in this novel you come close to discovering what it is.
4. Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland
A story of catastrophes: one is a global disaster, the other the long coma of the title. Both lead to a belated awakening, which is when the symbolism kicks in. There is a looseness to the narration that shifts the book away from the conventional disaster novel, and in the end the almost distracted quality of the writing becomes its authentic voice. Coupland is on the right tracks with this book, but others of his novels have shown a tendency to return to more conventional material.
5. The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson
One of the most original and unusual novels of the last decade; it’s also one of Erickson’s most approachable books, being structurally daring and thematically flexible but strongly paced and coherently narrated. I also liked another of his novels, Arc d’X, but had problems following some of it. Erickson is a hard, impressive writer.
6. Light by M John Harrison
Space opera, that shagged-out fag-end of action-filled science fiction, has never looked so intellectually rigorous as in Harrison’s most recent novel. It’s a multi-level work, some of it set in the present day. Here, or in Harrison’s terms ‘then’, a cosmologist solves a key matter of the universe, yet abases himself in serial murders as an atonement to a personal shadow. Centuries later, a freebooting spaceship with a human entity hotwired into its systems tours the shores of the cosmically brilliant Kefahuchi Tract. This is where the space action begins, but never before has it been told on such a scale, with such a peculiarly nihilistic mindset, nor in such endlessly inventive language.
7. Ice by Anna Kavan
Kavan was a heroin addict for most of her life. Ice is her best novel: a sustained and extended metaphor for the descent into, and traverse of, the ice-laden world of the addict. This description does not prepare you for what the book contains: it’s a marvel of descriptive, chilling writing, rich in action and introspection.
8. Being There by Jerzy Kosinski
Kosinski’s reputation suffered towards the end of his life because of allegations against him, always denied, of plagiarism. That’s as maybe: what Kosinski should be read for is his cool, glassy prose, his other-worldly view, the callous and sometimes brutal violence both of ideas and actions. Being There is probably his best-known book, because of the Peter Sellers film, but Kosinski should be read as if his individual books are chapters of a larger novel. The first I read was Steps, which had a permanent effect on the way I understood modern fiction should be written. Later I read The Painted Bird, a novel of the second world war, and there has never been anything else remotely like it, before or after, in war fiction.
9. The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser
Millhauser is interestingly concerned with unlikely things: department stores, roller-coasters, underground theme parks, board games, magic acts. His prose is steady, exact and attentive, almost devoid of dialogue, a reasonable-sounding discourse on unreasonable subjects. Others by Millhauser worth trying are Edwin Mullhouse (a novel, which defies description in such a small space) and another wonderful collection, The Barnum Museum.
10. The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Schulz was a Polish writer, murdered in an almost offhand way by the Gestapo during the second world war. His canvas was small: few of his stories ventured outside the setting of his parents’ house or the provincial town in which he lived, but his scope was cosmic. One story, ‘The Comet’, achieves a Wellsian grandeur, a Kafkaesque intrigue when the author’s father, who figures in most of the stories, emerges as a hero of science.