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Brian Aldiss: Life in the West

This book made the Anthony Burgess 99 novels list as well as Bruce Sterling’s slipstream list, which means it must have something going for it and, indeed, it does. Thomas Squire is the founder of the Society for Popular Aesthetics and is attending, in that capacity, an international media symposium in Ermalpa, Sicily, organized by Jacques d’Exiteuil. The action subsequently slips in and out of Ermalpa as we get flashbacks and flashforwards of Squire’s disintegrating life (marriage, work, family name). Just as Barefoot in the Head, written in the Sixties, focused on the drug culture, so this book, written in the Seventies, takes up the case of the post-Sixties disillusionment that started to set in as the Sixties generation realized that sex and drugs weren’t going to do it and that life might just be passing them by.

But a mid-life crisis is not what attracted Burgess and Sterling to this novel. Firstly, there is the dichotomy between life in the West (or, rather, Life in the West) and Life in the East (i.e. Eastern Europe), i.e. the comfort and easy life in the West, compared to the very real problems people in Eastern Europe were facing (perfectly illustrated by juxtaposing an English country Christmas and a bloody conflict in Yugoslavia (written more than twenty years before NATO bombed Milosevic)). Secondly, there is the dichotomy that Burgess points out in his 99 Novels book (you’ll have to buy the book – the discussion isn’t on the website) between our sense that things are getting worse in a moral sense (either, as in this case, in our personal lives or in general) and the hope offered by new technology. (This is, of course, even more the case in the early part of the new millennium; Aldiss was writing in the late Seventies.) There is a plot as we follows Squire’s problems, the conference and sex and espionage but it is Aldiss’ depiction of the late Seventies malaise that makes this book so fine. Sad that it is now out of print in the USA.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson