Random Reading 14
David Langford

The Pervasion of Lint

What is the occult significance of navel lint? Avram Davidson's short story "The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off of Eye Street" (F&SF February 1962) is a gallimaufry of oddities set in a singularly odd alternate 1961, whose hero George -- an industrial alchemist by profession -- has passed his finals in the Deep School and won "the right to wear the Navel Plug, with two Pips". Which may be a liability, for when he's ensorcelled and abducted by a seeming Drum Majorette 1/c, she torments him with the pretext of being about to "withdraw George's Plug, two Pips or no two Pips." He protests strongly: "without the Plug I should swell up with lint in simply no time; funny thing about me, I'm very susceptible to navel lint, always was, from a child."

Let us leave George to his fate, which he escapes via both dexterity and deus ex machina, and remember that the wondrously erudite Avram Davidson was a literary eclectic who like Borges had seemingly read everything that the rest of the world had forgotten -- see in particular his 1993 Adventures in Unhistory. Was the navel-lint horror a flight of fancy or an obscure allusion? Without comment, here are some extracts from a contemporary document of the English Civil War, The Diary of Ralph Josselin (1616-1683) (Royal Historical Society, 1908; Oxford University Press, 1976):

If only the Rev. Ralph Josselin had enjoyed the secure comfort of a Plug, with two Pips!

Invoking the little-researched theme of lint in genre fiction leads with a certain inevitability to Steve Aylett's characteristically deranged Lint (2005), a purported biography of sf author Jeff Lint -- who is not Philip K. Dick but has frequent eerie resemblances. His life, for example, is changed forever by his "Fantastic Lemon" Experience of 1973, although "Lint never could explain to anyone what was so 'fantastic' about the lemon." There are almost believable full-colour illustrations of Lint's terrible book jackets, inscrutably scripted comics (The Caterer, a whole "reprint" issue of which has since been published), nightmare-inducing TV animations, etc etc, all spun out in inventive detail. The whole farrago is crammed with intensely silly one-liners: "In 1949 Lint managed to convince the hapless Alan Rouch [a fictional fellow-author] that he could win the Nobel Prize by disguising his head as a giant eyeball." 144 pages later, when you'd swear that Aylett must have forgotten that throwaway line, we get the authentically tatty cover of J-LINT, a fanzine devoted to Lint and featuring an interview with Rouch illustrated with a photo of someone whose head is disguised as a giant eyeball. I laughed a great deal while reading this -- often embarrassingly, on trains -- and wish I'd tackled it when a review would have been timely. If you need any further commendation, there are enthusiastic back-jacket plugs from both Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore.

"Eh? Lint Paean?" some reader may by now have remarked, which is of course an anagram of Elephantina -- and Andrew Drummond's Elephantina (2008) is a highly quirky period novel with genre resonances. Its hero ought to be Dr Patrick Blair, who truly did dissect the unfortunate elephant that foundered and died in 1706 Dundee. But it's narrated by a humbler character, Gilbert Orum, the local engraver who illustrates Blair's treatise (Royal Society, 1710) and has misgivings about being required to observe and take part in the prolonged, gruesome dissection of a very large and latterly very putrefied carcase. His journal is presented, edited and footnoted by the quarrelsome 1830 commentator "Senex", who views Orum's foibles and financial difficulties with deep disdain but somehow manages to swallow his dislike of Blair's whimsically subversive comparisons of Elephantina to the body politic, and her various decaying organs to assorted Scots worthies expecting corrupt personal gain from the imminent Act of Union with England. Towards the end, with an editorial arrogance reminiscent of Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire, "Senex" angrily asserts total control over the text and banishes Orum to the footnotes. There are fantastic elements: Orum may be an unreliable narrator, and may be hallucinating when he hears the Elephant enumerate the detailed tally of her bones, but even "Senex" is unable to explain how this mere artisan (whose Latin isn't equal to Blair's gag about naming one bone the Ossiculum Orumiculum Inutilum) has somehow set down the exact technical osteology which Blair was not to publish until four years later. Tasty, with a decided charnel-house whiff; darkly funny and very odd. The publishers, Polygon of Edinburgh, have presented the book as a nice facsimile of the supposed 1830 edition, with 2008 copyright details tucked away at the rear. Drummond's previous novels, we learn, were An Abridged History of the Construction of the Railway Line between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver (2004) and A Handbook of Volapük (2006).

No doubt the great Avram Davidson knew all about Dr Patrick Blair's monograph, and would have appreciated lines like this from the Elephantina introduction's paean to Blair, Great Son of Dundee: "Had he not corresponded with the esteemed botanist M. Tournefort of Paris, whose death was declared by Dr. Patrick Blair to be 'a general loss to the vegetable kingdom'?" Indeed.