It is clear that Aldiss’s self-proclaimed ‘anti-novel’ owes a great deal to a number of influences. Perhaps the most obvious and openly acknowledged is that of Samuel Beckett. Aldiss has a character named Watt, and the novel has a strong affinity with Beckett’s early work. We can also see something of Pinter in there, along with Robbe-Grillet. Yet Aldiss manages to stay out of the glare of such luminaries and create a shining work of his very own.
A house in a town is under close observation. In each of the three outbuildings is a character known only by an initial: G, S, and C; although these probably represent Gardener, Secretary, and Chauffeur as these seem to have been the capacity in which each of these characters was once employed. They each observe the house whilst trying to remain concealed. This gives each of them a limited viewpoint.
There are occasional forays across the road to the café opposite the house. This is owned by Watt. And that is all. Events are minimal. The observations and situation of each of the observers is given in minute and obsessive detail. In the process we learn other details and, in particular, our attention is constantly drawn to Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ - also described in minute (although sometimes invented) detail.
Clearly this is a book about perception and how we can never see the whole of things; a book about obsession; a book about interpretation. This alone makes it a metafiction as there is a tendency when reading to try to interpret and make what you can of the limited information on offer. Yet the reference to Watt may also point to Beckett’s dictum ‘no symbols where none intended’.
The overall tone of the book is of a dream. The descriptions of the town and the bizarre snippets we are afforded as characters cross the road (a bloody bicycle carried on a stretcher, for example) give everything an air of unreality, drifting between one’s own psyche and that of the worlds created by the likes of Beckett, O’Brien, Robbe-Grillet - intense, enclosed, mundane, yet mysterious.
For me, this is an important work of literature. So why is it ignored by the mainstream? Why do we not see this book included in discussions of absurdist or surrealist literature? Why is it not cited in discussions of the anti-novel? Well, my edition tells me helpfully on the cover that it is a work of science fiction. And to be sure there are some short interpolated passages in which people from different dimensions observe what is happening in the main part of the novel. But they add nothing to the story and I (along with others I have discussed this with) suspect they were put in to make sure the novel made it into print. If you do get hold of a copy, ignore the bits in italics. Read it as a piece of highly-accomplished and extremely intelligent piece of literature.