D. Harlan Wilson
Steve Beard is the author of five books, among them the novels Digital Leatherette (1999) and Meat Puppet Cabaret (2006), as well as an online writing game, Mappalujo, which he co-writes with fellow English author Jeff Noon. Combining a cast-iron intellectualism with a beat coolness, Beard’s work falls into the realms of science fiction, fantasy, horror, gonzo journalism and Bizarro, among other genres. He’s part Georges Bataille, part Tim Burton, part Dr. Seuss, and part William Gibson. Gibson, in fact, thinks highly of Digital Leatherette, calling it “fresh evidence that the street finds its own uses for literature.” Another cyberpunk godfather, Bruce Sterling, says Beard is “a thorny weed in the parking lot of postmodernity”. Two of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries think Steve Beard is a literary dynamo — who’s gonna argue with them?
DHW: Let’s start with a cliché — the notion that reality is stranger than fiction. Do you agree or disagree?
SB: I disagree. If reality is stranger than fiction, then documenting reality would produce strange fiction. Whereas most realist fiction is not strange at all; it merely reinforces people’s existing assumptions about reality. I’m interested in fiction that produces a reality of its own. Borges is a good example. As is the alternate history genre of science fiction.
You used to be a style journalist for i-D Magazine. What were your duties? Was this a formative experience for your fiction writing?
When I wrote for i-D, I had the freedom to write about anything that interested me — that included not just films, music and novels, but also cultural theory and French philosophy. I worked for a time alongside Kodwo Eshun, and we always aimed to produce a kind of writing that fell between the essay and feature magazine journalism. I think this idea of writing between genres is something that stayed with me.
Your work is clearly influenced by the legacy of the cyberpunks. What about cyberpunk literature do you find appealing?
Yes, I was always into cyberpunk and was privileged enough to interview both William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. What is appealing about the cyberpunks is that they were interested in producing dystopian allegories of emerging trends in society. Their fiction seemed very strange at the time (because, as Gibson says, the future is always unevenly distributed). Now, it reads like realist fiction (it’s interesting, in that respect, that both Gibson and Sterling are now writing techno-thrillers rather than science fiction).
Meat Puppet Cabaret is a wildly complex and entertaining novel that effectively combines the numerous genres. Multigeneric works of this nature seem to be growing in popularity. Do you agree? What was the inspiration for your novel?
Thanks for the kind words about Meat Puppet Cabaret. Multigeneric works? Hmm. I guess that genre fiction is producing its own hybrids. China Mieville came up with the term New Weird to describe a mix of horror and fantasy. I suppose the Bizarro genre is in the same area, but with a bit of pervo-deviant surrealism thrown in for luck. Meat Puppet Cabaret was inspired by what I came to see as contemporary folklore. That includes urban legends, conspiracy theory, prophecy and psychogeography.
Why do you call Meat Puppet Cabaret a “baroque” novel.
Well, it was actually John Lawson, my publisher at Raw Dog Screaming Press, who called Meat Puppet Cabaret a baroque novel. I thought it was a good fit because "baroque" is a term used to describe a miscegenation of styles (although, "creole" might be more accurate, catching as it does my interest in minoritarian styles such as Afrofuturism). Walter Benjamin wrote a whole book about the baroque and he links it to a kind of redemptive allegory.
How did you hook up with Jeff Noon? Tell us about Mappalujo.
I moved from London to Brighton, on the south coast of England, in 1998. Jeff Noon moved down to Brighton from Manchester shortly afterwards. I’d always greatly admired Jeff’s own richly baroque take on dark fantasy. We met at the Sussex Arts Club when I was doing a reading from my novel Digital Leatherette. Our heads were both into experimental fiction at the time (I’d just had Perfumed Head published; and he was just finishing Cobralingus). Jeff suggested we collaborate on a novel which imported remix techniques from dance music into fiction (he calls the genre "dub fiction"). The result had obvious affinities with hypertext fiction, and we decided to publish it online (although now we are working on an expanded version we hope to publish as a book).
Have you collaborated with other authors?
I collaborated with Kodwo Eshun on i-D magazine. And I’ve been collaborating with the artist Victoria Halford on speculative essays for the artworld journal Inventory. My mind is very open to collaboration with the right people.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished collaborating on a short animated film script for a gallery installation by the artists Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson. It’s called Hibernator: Prince of the Petrified Forest. It takes the folklore about Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen at death and pushes it in a very weird direction.
Your novella, Survivor’s Dream, appears in The Bizarro Starter Kit, where you refer to your style of Bizarro writing as “Metrosexual.” Why did you choose this title?
"Metrosexual" is a term popularised by the journalist Mark Simpson to characterize straight guys who have an affinity with gay culture. Although that doesn’t describe me exactly, I am certainly interested in queer poetics and the way artists like Jean Genet and William Burroughs take the curse put on them by straight society and throw it back at them. Perhaps I should also add that I was a David Bowie fan when I was a kid. (Survivor’s Dream, by the way, is actually an extract from Meat Puppet Cabaret.)
What are your thoughts on the Bizarro movement?
I didn’t know it was a movement. Wow! Well, I’m in The Bizarro Starter Kit, so I guess I’m part of it. I see Bizarro as an attempt to label a mood that’s been out there on the edge of the culture for quite a while. It’s about the feeling of disorientation you get when you see the world through a cracked lens. Bizarro was a character in the Superman comics, wasn’t he? There was a whole Bizarro world, with contrary laws of physics, as I seem to remember. So, maybe Bizarro is about the hopeless attempts to produce radically utopian worlds. It’s a comic genre.
Is postmodernism in our dust? How would you depict the contemporary aesthetic terrain?
That’s a big question. I think postmodernism has pretty much led to a dead end, with everyone happy to sample the same cultural greats from the past. Maybe that’s been its value, actually — a process of canon formation for postwar pop culture. We can all agree that the "Funky Drummer" riff is a great drum sound and that Robert De Niro doing Travis Bickle is a perfect emblem of alienation. Maybe it’s time to move on. Something that could point to an exit from the postmodern hall of mirrors is a cultural trend called "hauntology."
One reviewer called your writing “disorienting,” “jumbled” and “oversaturated,” although not in a negative way. Is this an accurate depiction? If so, why do you schizophrenize your writing?
These are really questions about the writing technique I used for Digital Leatherette and Meat Puppet Cabaret. In both novels, I used multiple points of view to comment on a narrative which was deliberately eclipsed. The result is a simulation of the way dreams work; they are the indicators of an unconscious existence which is, by definition, unknown. Why did I do this? I wanted to give value to an altered state of consciousness, or rather, a state of consciousness which frays at the edges. The process is interesting, because it shows how writing can begin to take on rhythmic and symphonic aspects. Drum’n’bass music was a big influence.
Jack the Ripper is a central character in Meat Puppet Cabaret. What about his mythology interests you? What do you think about the practice of Ripperology?
Jack the Ripper interested me because he was an urban legend from the East End of London, where I lived from 1997 to 1998. He seemed to be almost a street deity, similar to Baron Samedi from the Haitian voodoo pantheon. I reckon he’s primarily a god of sexual hatred of women; but he’s also a god of police disempowerment and corresponding prole threat. The English situationists certainly saw him as a kind of cultural mask through which reckless desires could be made to speak. I should make clear that all this happens at the level of Jack the Ripper, the myth. The problem I have with Ripperology is that it deals with Jack the Ripper, the man; and this can come close at times to an expression of solidarity with a serial killer (it’s one reason why "Jack the Ripper" is not a designation that is ever used in the text of Meat Puppet Cabaret).
As a kind of quasi-Ripperologist myself, I always end my interviews with the same question: Who do you think was Jack the Ripper?
That would be telling.