Barefoot in the Head (subtitled A European Fantasia) is a difficult yet rewarding novel. Aldiss intersperses many poems as inter-chapters. The poems augment, reflect, or explain the events of the novel. The stylistic techniques of Aldiss’ writing become increasing dense, allusive, elusive, and rewarding.
James Joyce’s linguistic experiments, begun in Ulysses (1922) and continued in Finnegans Wake (1939), are at the heart of Barefoot in the Head. The book is also filled with wordplay of all types, including complicated multilevel puns and abstruse figures of speech. Aldiss makes literary references to such diverse writers as William Shakespeare, John Milton, T. S. Eliot, and Joyce himself, as well as references to both Gurdjieff and Ouspenski. Joyce was often concerned with the myth of the eternal return, but Gurdjieff did not advocate the subject, believing that it discouraged striving for change.
In this novel, when everything seems twisted and out of shape, and when the concepts of traditional narrative linearity are often difficult to follow, Aldiss seems to be not only mirroring the psychedelic experiments of the 1960’s but also providing some cautionary warnings. Aldiss, however, is never sermonic, and his own beliefs, whatever they might have been, are hidden carefully under the thrust of narrative structure and the complications of plot and character. The novel is written almost in a molecular structure, with the electrons of the various plot elements spinning around one another, intermixing or impinging on the central themes of Man the Driver, Man the Searching, Man the Unpredictable, and Man the Mechanical.
For all the difficulties encountered in reading Barefoot in the Head, its abundant humor is not to be overlooked. Aldiss uses an exuberant, almost joyful style, at once deliberative and ecstatic, even considering the nature of the story line. Although baleful in subject matter, the novel is ultimately joyful in both conception and execution and is certainly one of Aldiss’ most intriguing works.