Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
When one first opens Brian W. Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head, it is not hard to see why the work has always been more popular with critics than with audiences and more popular in Great Britain than in the United States. It is a dense, many-layered work, relying heavily on the punning, condensed, multilingual, and allusive style introduced to the twentieth century by James Joyce. Although many things happen, or appear to be happening, much of the “action” takes place within the disordered minds of the characters.
A few years before the beginning of the story, a third world war has occurred, but one unlike any that was imagined: It was begun not by Russians or Americans but by the Kuwaitis, and its weapons were not nuclear but chemical. Europe and America were drenched in hallucinatory sprays, leaving a residue of persistent chemicals, stronger in some areas, weaker in others, but a poison nevertheless, that throughout the story gradually brings Western civilization (Aldiss’ “wesciv”) to a halt.
The central character, Colin Charteris, is a young man, nineteen years old, who at first is working to repair the damage of the “Acid-Head War”; he has grown dissatisfied with his duties for the New United Nations Strategic Air Command, however, and a longtime fascination with England overcomes him. Born in Serbia, Charteris has assumed his present name in honor of the English mystery writer Leslie Charteris. With his new name and driving his new car, a blood-red Banshee, Charteris heads toward England. At first, his path lies through France, neutral in the war and therefore relatively free from psychedelic fogs. No part of Europe, however, has been completely unaffected: Automobile drivers are frequently seized with visions when behind the wheel, and, to lessen the possibility of accidents, highways have been widened and lanes multiplied. Still, the road builders are not entirely in control themselves. While parliaments pass measures requiring dogs to sing at night, the highway construction crews feverishly build, burying neighborhoods beneath concrete. As life loses its rationality for many, a speeding death appears attractive, and Charteris counts himself lucky to get to Metz alive. Even before he can reach an England heavily saturated with chemicals, however, Charteris almost immediately begins to lose control, hallucinating on the ferry crossing the English Channel.
Once in England, he meets Phil Brasher, one of a number of spaced-out victims who see themselves as the bringers of a new social order. Brasher’s quasi-religious message is preached by his rock group, the Escalation band. Brasher accepts Charteris as a disciple, but their positions are soon reversed, and antagonism develops between the two as Charteris proves to be the more popular with the Midland masses. In a scuffle, Charteris pushes Brasher to his death in traffic and almost immediately thereafter begins an affair with Brasher’s widow, Angeline. As he falls further and further into religious and chemical mania, Charteris conceives a vision of “Man the Driver” and leads his growing band of followers on a crusade to the Continent to a destination seen in visions.
The first movement of their autocade takes them to Belgium, where the bulk of the story takes place. As his concern for others slips away, Charteris watches indifferently as one of his early followers drowns himself, mistakenly thinking that Charteris will use divine powers to save him. Charteris acquires a second mistress in Marta Koninkrijk and thereby complicates Angeline’s life but not his own. A ferocious traffic accident in Belgium convinces even more people of Charteris’ messianic nature: The first car to crash was his Banshee, but still another follower—this time a member of the band—had begged Charteris to let him drive the car that day, sparing Charteris.
The accident brings another character into the story: Nicholas Boreas, a motion-picture producer of sorts, whose most acclaimed film depicts an actual murder. Boreas arranges to re-create and film the accident, and again real death occurs when one of his employees, in a hallucinogenic haze, volunteers to die in the crash. Boreas, however, never sees the finished film, which is at first lost and then presumably destroyed: Charteris’ followers, never much in control, head on, leaving Brussels in flames behind them.
His visions lead Charteris toward Frankfurt, a place of real danger, since it has been so heavily bombed in the war that its society is in a shambles. The rubble of civil control is demonstrated by a police raid on the autocade that accomplishes little but the further swelling of the number of Charteris’ disciples. He reaches Germany by walking across the waters of the Rhine, and Angeline fears that he will proceed to the next step in establishing his godhead—crucifixion. Charteris rejects all old forms, however, and chooses instead to “have it both ways,” to live to the age of ninety. His group breaks up, although his followers ask him only to lead them, because Charteris at this final stage seems to care only for himself. He abandons the notion of “Man the Driver” and, becoming man the pedestrian, drops out of human companionship, content with his own company.
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