No substance - just lots of abuse

Nicholas Royle has a bad trip with the chemical generation
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Disco Biscuits edited by Sarah Champion, Sceptre, pounds 6.99

Sarah Champion's round-up of acid-house ravings has already shifted 15,000 copies and prompted its publisher to commission a second volume, Disco 2000. Is Champion leading the way or has she merely hitched a rise on a bandwagon? "New fiction from the chemical generation" claims the cover-line, despite the fact that two of the 19 contributions are reprints (Irvine Welsh's and Steve Aylett's). A quick run down the contents page reveals an all-male contributor list. In her introduction, editor Champion namechecks one Allen Ginsburg (sic) in a roll call of drug-culture antecedents.

This misspelling is only the first of three dozen literals, typos and shudder-producing howlers scattered throughout the pages of Disco Biscuits. Is the idea that you read the book while you're off your face on one of its many featured drugs and so don't care about such piffling details, or is it that Champion (and an in-house P45-chaser?) were E'd up when they should have been getting down to the task?

No, the idea is that here is a collection of stories celebrating ten years of acid house: techno, jungle and drum 'n' bass, spliff, blow and E. If none of these terms means anything to you, (a) where have you been for the last ten years? and (b) Disco Biscuits is definitely not for you. If there was ever a hippy anthology, or a punk collection, few remember them. The same fate surely awaits Champion's book, unless it's remembered as a low point in the history of Sceptre.

The less said about the stories themselves the better. Out of 19, three are readable and one is pretty good. In this company it's outstanding - that's Steve Aylett's "Repeater", reprinted from Technopagan (Pulp Faction) edited by Elaine Palmer. At its best, Aylett's prose is like poetry - "Acres of grass were blown to italics" - with attitude - "Add velocity to ignorance and you get a police car". Alex Garland's "Blink and You Miss It" has a little of the psychological depth that is absent elsewhere, and Matthew De Abaitua has a clever turn of phrase: "I pull another impassive face out of my bag and slap it over my fear. When Job is driving, I always like to have some impassive faces to hand".

But Champion does the rest of her contributors a disservice by publishing work that is not ready, stories which should have been slipped into stamped addressed envelopes and returned with a few words of discouragement. And she does the small handful of competent writers a disservice by showcasing their stories in such a misjudged project. But more importantly, she - and Sceptre - do us all a disservice by publishing this stuff at all, flooding the market and lowering the expectations of readers.

For a book that's about substance abuse, there's precious little substance, just lots of abuse. Irvine Welsh gets closest to describing the experience of being completely out of it: "Rhymes and rhythms flashed incessantly through his head, but he couldn't say them, as these thoughts had no proximity to speech".

Dance culture is a non-verbal phenomenon whichever way you look at it: whether you're rushing on E or in thrall to the beat. So many writers here strive to put the experience into words and fail, thanks to insufficiency of both technique and something to say other than "Are you up yet?"

Anyone who has ever been straight around people who are high knows that drugs do not guarantee that the user will say anything even half interesting. Pill-poppers will admit this themselves once they're down. As the narrator of Kevin Williamson's "Heart of the Bass" says: "Anything's got to be better than listening to his bollocks tales of drugs and shagging." It's yet another indication that Champion is not an editor in control of her material. Either that line should have been deleted to save her blushes, or 80 per cent of the book should have been ditched.

Ten years ago, Sceptre published 20 Under 35, an exciting anthology of new short stories by young writers who, in the opinion of its editor Peter Straus, would form the vanguard of the next decade. It contained outstanding work by Rupert Thomson, Geoff Nicholson, Joan Smith, Iain Banks and others. What Sceptre should be publishing in 1997 is a much-needed follow-up to Straus's anthology rather than leaping on a clapped-out bandwagon.