St. Martins Press, 1996, ISBN 0312141440; Paperback $14.95. [Browse/Purchase]
He forced my mouth wide open; the fingers of one hand squeezing my cheeks, the other hand pushing the feather home, deep, to the back of the throat. I could feel it there, tickling, making me want to gag. And then the Vurt kicked in.
Set in a run-down world where drugs, dreams, and virtual reality have come together in the form of colour-coded feathers, Noons first novel is a cyberpunk story filled with longing, aggression and pain. Vurt is a futuristic fever-dream in which the narrator, Scribble, and his Vurt-addicted group are trying to find a rare feather in order to save Scribbles sister-lover Desdemona. Along the way, Scribble numbs his sorrow with feathers like Blue Lullaby and Tapewormer, moving from one reality to the next as he gradually comes to terms with the very nature of his being. As these feathers exert their strange effects, the book morphs with them, carrying the reader through a vivid kaleidoscope of alternative narratives and bizarre, nested realities.
It is actually this sense of expansiveness that gives rise to the books most disappointing flaw, a problem which suggests that Vurt suffers from unsure intentions. Although the concept of the feathers is brilliantly evocative, new characters and plot twists are introduced too often to allow the basic premise to fully develop, resulting in a repeated loss of momentum and a blurring of focus. Because of the narratives many blind alleys, the characters quickly become caricatures trapped in the claustrophobic space of the novel, wandering blindly from one unnecessarily chaotic position to the next.
If one were to draw an analogy between Noons body of work and the processes used in the making of electronic music, Vurt could be likened to the initial signal pushed through a series of filter gates. That is to say, the novel holds nearly all the elements Noon would expand upon in his later, more mature works. Still, in all fairness, it should be noted that Vurt does have many admirers who count it among the descendants of William Gibsons seminal Neuromancer (1984), and its surreal depiction of futuristic gangs earns frequent comparisons to Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962).
I watched him peel back the twin slices of skin until I was looking deep into the inner reaches of the victims mouth. I had his throat muscles on view, a violent abstraction on the screen, and I could see the broken stalks of the flowers nesting there. His throat had been pierced by them.
An English folk song announces that Sir John Barleycorn, the god of corn and alcohol, must die. The Sneeze (a great big AAHHCCSSHH spread across several pages) will occur sometime in the near future. A short document explains that Pollination was the first major confrontation in the Looking Glass Wars....
A moody thriller set in the rain-drenched Manchester first glimpsed in Vurt, Pollens introductory triad lays out the main strands of Noons second novel: mythology, general weirdness, and future history. In this respect, Pollen shares many similarities with its predecessor, in which connections between Greek myths and English folklore are grafted onto science fiction and surreal fantasy. But while both may share the same groundwork, Pollen displays two key developments on the level of technique. First, Noons evocative prose smoothly binds together his seemingly discordant ideas, and the book as a whole feels more integrated. Second, Noons thematic obsessions are given real force through an emotional bond, the broken family tie between police officer Sybil Jones and her runaway daughter Boda.
With Pollen, Noons prose begins to meet the demands of his imagination, and the result is a more mature and original work. The novel has a spacious narrative arc, its brilliant, nonsensical climax taking shape from the very start. Pollen also reveals that which is central to Noons fiction, something only hinted at in Vurt: a great, lyrical sadness is to be found beneath the layers of weirdness.
Trafalgar Square, 2000, ISBN 0552999059; Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Wherever... I... lay... my... hat... is... my... shell... With this utterance the Snailman lay down on the dirt floor and then started to smooth his body into his hat.
Riddled with acronyms, portmanteau words, and deliberate misspellings (and singings!), Automated Alice is a trequel to Lewis Carrolls two Alice books. The novella is illustrated by Harry Trumbore, and his images support Noons Carrollian mimicry quite well; they also contain charming details not mentioned in the text. Still, a closer resemblance to the illustrations of John Tenniel might have been more appropriate to Noons intention: Automated Alice is a postmodern pastiche (an oxymoron or a tautology?), drawing much of its allure from its relationship to the original works.
During her trip into the future Manchester of 1998, Alice runs across a colourful supporting cast that includes such personages as Captain Ramshackle, Professor Gladys Chrowdingler and her cat Quark (who has a knack for disappearing), and Celia, Alices synthetic Twin Twister. Alice also meets a certain author by the name of Zenith OClock:
I write in the language called Frictional. Im a writer of Wrongs.
Whatevers a wrong?
A wrong is a book the Crickets dont consider to be right, preferring their stories to be told in Simpleton rather than Frictional. They rub their dry wings together, these Crickets, making a terrible respond to my work in the noisepapers.
Although Noon has captured much of Carrolls playful use of language, his impersonation occasionally falls flat. For one, Automated Alice contains no paradoxes or mathematical games; but on a deeper level, its also lacking the more somber, philosophical tones found in Carrolls original. One almost gets the sense that Noon is taking the easy way out. Having said this, however, its still hard to hold Noon entirely at fault; after all, the Alice in Wonderland tales are one of the cornerstones of his fiction, and hes certainly explored its complex facets in his other works. With Automated Alice, Noon sticks to the lighter side of things, offering a fantastic adventure brimming with acrid humor and clever wordplay.
Trafalgar Square, 2000, ISBN 0552999067; Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
The whole city went wild for the gambling fever, as the screen fluttered into darkness. Pulses of music. Circles of light, starting to shine. An undulating darkness, littered with stars. Revealing the dancing queen of randomness. Cookie Lucks skintight and black catsuit was snug-fit to the countrys dreams, an Emma Peel of forever and a long shot.
Nymphomation is the origin story of the Vurt cycle, presenting a time prior to the advent of the feathers. The people of Manchester are getting hooked on the Domino Bones, a new lottery game being tested by the enigmatic Company. The novel begins at Game 40, just a few weeks before the end of the trial period and the subsequent country-wide expansion of the game.
Perhaps the most plot-driven of Noons novels, Nymphomation mixes family drama with light satire and a sense of the fantastic. With a decidedly relaxed pace, the personalities and relationships of its large cast are allowed to meaningfully unfold. The prose is strongly sensuous, entwining sex, food, and arithmetic. Noon has great fun with game theory and mathematics: according to the theory of nymphomation, numbers can mate and produce new numbers. The theory was the brainchild of a 1960s community of mathematicians whose experiments with free love, artificial life, and Borgesian mazes laid the groundwork for the curious logic of the Domino Bones game. Accessing the university network, one of the main characters goes through the Mathematics Departments archives and gets a glimpse at contributions made to a mathemagical grimoir called Number Gumbo:
Out of curiosity, she studies the titles and authors of some of the other papers the search had found. Sure enough, all fifty-two of them were written by Hackle, all of them published in the Sixties and Seventies. All of them called things like Twisted Hackle Paths and Other Such Wanderings; The Trickster Virus, its Effect upon Game; Maze Dynamic and DNA Codings, a Special Theory of Nymphomation; Sealing the Maze, the Theseus Equation; Lost in the Love Labyrinth; Becoming the Maze, a Topology of Virgin Curves; and even Fourth-Dimensional Orgasms and the Casanova Effect.
An effortless read, Nymphomation can at times seem a bit insubstantial. Amid the lively exchanges of dialogue and steady intromissions of plot twists, Noon nevertheless manages to reach peaks of fresh expression, such as when he summons Carrolls Jabberwocky poem to describe the Domino Bones mania: Twas nineish, and the slimy hordes did clack and gamble in the wave. All dotty were the game-parades, and the telebox did crave.
Corgi/Transworld, 2000, ISBN 0552999377; Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Johnny takes Metaphorazine. Every clockwork day. Says it burns his house down, with a haircut made of wings. You could say he eats a problem. You could say he strokes his thrill. Every clingfilm evening, climb inside a little pill. Intoxicate the feelings. Play those skull-piano blues. Johnny takes Metaphorazine. Hes a dog.
So begins Metaphorazine, one of the 50 short stories collected in Pixel Juice, before going on to detail the effects of Simileum, Litotezol, Hyperbolehyde, Alliterene, Onomapotopiates and oxymorox.
His first collection of short fiction, Pixel Juice gives Noon the opportunity to try out many new voices and styles. The resultant stories make up a varied bunch, yet they can be grouped into three essential categories according to their main focus. The Shakespeare Estate stories are about childhood and youth, and revolve around the themes of growing up and experiencing the world anew. The works concerning the Autogens (or Robos, or more generally, artificiality) are stories of paralysis and alienation. Lastly, there are the Museum of Fragments pieces, which include incomplete glossaries, notices of product recalls, instructions for strange machines, and rules for imaginary board games. Noon segues between these three groups with ease, establishing a mood that resonates from story to story, gathering a collective force that proves stronger than the sum of its parts. As with all of his work, themes of evasive darkness and surreal experience underpin many of the stories, expressed most potently in The Cabinet of Night Unlocked, Junior Pimp, and Crawl Town.
Pixel Juice also introduces the idea of the literary remix, which functions similarly to its musical counterpart. Here, Noon takes an original story, recombines the words, adds some more material, and finally casts the whole thing into another form. The product is a new, often highly modified text, as when the story Call of the Weird, is remixed into Dub Weird (crawling kingdom remix). This gives Noon the opportunity to play with the language and form of his literary idols, while at the same time studying his own past work and locating elements which in turn contain the blueprints for his future works. Pixel Juice can be thus seen as a set of literary études: a series of improvisations, sketches, and miniature masterpieces from an assured prose stylist.
Needle in the Groove
Black Swan, 2001, ISBN 0552999199; Paperback £6.99. [Browse/Purchase UK]
dub culture / midnights vibration / something to reach for some throat, some bottom, some neck and some deep clutch of riverpulse / gets you hot just strapping yourself into the thing / and the more you play, the hotter it gets, the slicker the slide / and all for nothing much because none of the songs you discover, ever come anywhere near to what you hear in your dreams
A very compact novella, Needle in the Groove presents an alternative history of Manchesters music scene during the latter half of the twentieth-century. At the tail end of the millennium, a new band called Glam Damage has acquired a unique liquid-based recording medium. The music is contained in a sky-blue fluid locked in a small plastic globe. Shake the globe, remix the music. But the band members have discovered another interesting feature: the liquid can be used a drug, a drug which permits a psychedelic form of time travel. During one of these hallucinatory trips, the bands bassist Elliot Hill returns to early October of 1977 to witness the final nights of the legendary Electric Circus.
Needle in the Groove marks another major transition in Noons style. In previous works, the key images were more diffused throughout the narrative, but here they are tightly compressed. All deadwood is abolished, leaving only Elliots interior monologue and a few versions of the song the band are working on. The more surreal elements are also largely missing, and along with them goes the sense of dislocation and distance regarding the events depicted. As a result, the characters blighted world is more pronounced. Needle in the Groove is a rich, multi-layered gaze at the misery locked inside a city and its music.
FIND STORY OUTLET
The night is crawling with sparks. I cant sleep. Bad dreams. The heat and the sweat. Flesh prickling with itches, like Braille insects.
Cobralingus is a collection of 10 short pieces that Noon himself labels as metamorphiction. The etymology and sounds of words, semantics, and an assortment of fragments from such authors as Shakespeare, De Quincey and Dickinson act as the starting points, or inlets, from which Noon launches his exploration of the potential of literature. According to Noon, the cobralingus engine sets free the hidden desires innate in all the source fragments. In order to do this, Noon has taken the literary remix idea from Pixel Juice and greatly extended it, adding to his arsenal such tools as DECAY, FIND STORY, and RANDOMISE. Although this might sound awfully mechanical and cold, it is actually only a metaphorical façade: no software has been used beyond a word processor and Noons own wetware.
The inlet of the first text, Organic Pleasure Engine, is the poem Rosalyndes Madrigal (1591) by Thomas Lodge. Through the use of OVERLOAD, the poem is rearranged to suggest an apple. Then, a new sample is introduced: Sunday 28 Feb, 1999, containing a listing of the things Jeff Noon was up to on that day. These two sources are mixed, and finally the words take the shape of an apple with a dram bitten off. Thus the books mode is cast outright: language is something to be devoured, enjoyed. A linguistic banquet ensues in the following nine pieces.
Cobralingus is definitely a landmark work, not only because of its originality, but for the clarity and energy by which Noon animates his literary experiments. It must be mentioned that the book, by British small-press Codex, is a beautiful object in and of itself: the typographical design is fantastic, and the bluish-gray color is easy on the eye. Illustrations by Daniel Allington function as frontispieces, and seem to be telling stories of their own.
Falling Out of Cars
Doubleday, 2002, ISBN 1899598162; Paperback £12.99. [Browse/Purchase UK]
Will be published in the US in 2003
The noise gets in everywhere. Pages are ripped, or torn out completely; some discarded, others taped into new positions. There are smudges of dirt, of food, of blood. The marks where once a pressed flower lay; stains of chlorophyll, pollen, the tiny fragments of a petal.
The text of Falling Out of Cars is entirely comprised of the fragmentary diary of Marlene Moore, a journalist wandering around a deceased England with three companions. Nominally, they are on a mission to track down the shards of a magical mirror. In actual fact, Falling Out of Cars is a dreamlike, languid downward spiral into the increasingly unstable mind of Marlene. Or at least, that is the situation depicted by the journal, the only evidence available.
In Falling Out of Cars, Noon continues to develop the paired-down approach of Needle in the Groove, leaving intact only that which is essential. Keywords such as flicker, fragment, and eye are repeated with great frequency, as is the humdrum of car travel. What finally emerges is more than a road novel or a portrait of one womans unraveling sanity: Falling Out of Cars is a poetic essay on perception, memory and the arts.
As Noons characters are searching for the right words, searching for ways to reach out, their speech at times lapses into banality, into noise. The prose, on the other hand, is highly controlled; a signal pregnant with meaning. Falling Out of Cars holds these near-polar opposites within itself and lets them to play against each other. Soon the reader picks up a clear, vibrant pulse. Its the heartbeat of literature.
14 October 2003
More on Jeff Noon
Main Page Back to the Scriptoriums main Jeff Noon page, which contains a biographical sketch and Noon-related links.
Interview Ismo Santala interviews Jeff Noon.
Blurbs The UK publishers blurbs for Noons major works.