The Unexpected Detections of Jeff Noon

The great thing about a high-profile debut novel is its ability to serve as currency going forward. Jeff Noon’s 1993 novel Vurt is the kind of novel that prompts impressed reactions from a host of readers well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy worlds—but it’s also picked up enthusiastic endorsements from friends of mine whose tastes head in more esoteric and psychedelic directions. Over the years, Vurt has prompted comparisons to a host of cyberpunk novels—largely because its plot involves using a kind of techno-organic substance to move between the physical world and a more layered, internal one.

But just as that isn’t quite the cyberspace of William Gibson, neither is Noon precisely a cyberpunk author—the portrait that he paints of England seems to be less of a near future vision and more one of a slightly altered reality, period. It would make for an excellent double bill with Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet—both are books set in a skewed world where all things mythical take on a heightened position, and the delirious manifestations of art resonate on unexpected frequencies. In the case of Vurt, that comes through the dreamlike realm that its characters enter, populated by beings from fiction, mythology, and the collective unconscious.

Vurt is a novel involving a group of people on the wrong side of the law; its protagonist Scribble is addicted to feathers which transport their user’s consciousness (and sometimes their user, period) into another world—the Vurt of the title. Scribble’s sister Desdemona has vanished within this world, and as Scribble searches for her and looks back over their bond, it becomes gradually clear that their relationship may well have an incestuous tinge to it—a transgressive stroke in a novel already concerning itself with a host of illegal and antisocial behaviors.

Noon clearly empathizes with his characters, even when they do unsettling things—Scribble is presented as thoroughly flawed, but his central role in the narrative is nonetheless presented in a sympathetic light. He’s a flawed character trying to do the right thing, rather than an antihero embracing his own worst tendencies. This empathy puts much of his subsequent bibliography in a fascinating light. In a 2013 interview, Noon looked back on Vurt and discussed his approach to storytelling. “Really, I just see all these techniques as an attempt to uncover or invent new ways of telling stories,” he said. “It’s all about the avant-pulp. Story is still important, no matter how far I might push the text.”

For an author with a well-developed sense of the anti-authoritarian, Noon has found an interesting way to express that. This year saw the release of his third novel featuring private detective John Nyquist, an investigator making his way across a surreal version of 1959 England. It’s not the only novel of Noon’s to take an investigator as its central character—Pollen, his follow-up to Vurt, is also something of a police procedural. And his recent crime novel Slow Motion Ghosts is also centered around a police detective. It’s an interesting outlier in Noon’s work in that there are no overtly fantastical or uncanny elements in the story—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of feints in that direction.

The primacy of detectives in so many of Noon’s books can certainly seem disconcerting at first, given that his allegiances are largely with rebels, outlaws, and members of subcultures—traditionally not groups who have a warm rapport with agents of the law. In the case of the two actual police officers at the center of novels by Noon, you have Sybil Jones and Henry Hobbes, the protagonists of, respectively, Pollen and Slow Motion Ghosts. Both are presented as being at odds with the institutions they work for. In the case of the former, her telepathic abilities have placed a divide between her and her fellow police, while the latter has become an outcast after turning one of his colleagues in for a racist attack. As a private detective, Nyquist has a more overtly outcast role. The first novel featuring him, A Man of Shadows, ends with him leaving the surreal city of his birth, and its two follow-ups have each been set in equally distinct locales.

Alternately, it might be accurate to say that Noon has an interest in the detective as a seeker of truth, but he’s far less concerned with them as bearer of institutional authority. This is made most clear in Slow Motion Ghosts, where Henry Hobbes’s allegiance is with the law rather than anything else. And in the course of their adventures, both Sybil Jones and John Nyquist endure experiences that literally fray their identities as they search for the truth. For Noon, the pursuit of the truth is a noble calling, but he has little patience for those who would view that pursuit as indistinguishable from a badge and a uniform.

By structuring these works along the lines of detective fiction—a familiar genre if ever there was one—Noon is also able to pull off an impressive touch. Vurt set in motion the same motif that Noon would explore in rapidly changing forms over the last few decades: one in which two disparate views of reality come into conflict, leading to altered perceptions and chaos.

To wit: Pollen is about two conflicting realities converging on Manchester, a situation which threatens to upset the stability of the city as it currently exists. The primary investigation in Slow Motion Ghosts involves the aftereffects of a secret society—it’s not unlike The Secret History by way of Derek Raymond, with a glam-rock soundtrack to boot. And the Nyquist novels follow their protagonist through a series of cities that reflect the modes of a particular genre. For A Man of Shadows, that’s a kind of retro-futurism; for The Body Library it’s metafiction; and for Creeping Jenny it’s folk horror. Each of these books is decidedly heady, but the presence of a figure of order and logic in them allows for a baseline level of stability even as the rest of the world is (literally) falling apart.

Pollen is, at its most basic level, about Sybil Jones’s investigation of the bizarre death of a cab driver named Coyote. That both names have mythological connotations is very much intentional; they are far from the only characters with names derived from myth to be found in this book—or in Noon’s bibliography as a whole. An early page in this book, presented as a found text from the future of this fictional universe, suggests that the narrative to come is a chronicle of “one of the earliest skirmishes in the Looking Glass Wars”—which is to say, a clash between Earth and Vurt.

“Through the gates of Vurt the people could re-visit their own dreams, or, more dangerously, visit another person’s dream, a stranger’s dream,” Noon writes. In Noon’s earlier Vurt, Vurt itself is more dreamlike, but by the time of Pollen is (and its denizens) have become more self-aware. Or, as Noon phrases it: “[T]he creatures of the dream, as they grew more powerful, started to despise and look down upon the original dreamers.” Cue a conflict between worlds.

In Pollen, that conflict manifests itself as a conflict between stories and reality—including the quasi-mythological figure of John Barleycorn, who emerges as the closest thing the novel has to an antagonist. This ultimately brings Pollen’s conclusion to a metafictional level—or, as a colleague of Sybil’s tells her as they race in search of an answer, they’ve begun to move in a realm governed by narrative dimensions rather than physical ones. “Forget about distance and direction,” he tells her. “We’ve got to find the narrative connection.”

Finding the narrative connection sounds like shorthand for the work of a detective, a writer, and a reader alike. It certainly describes the work of Slow Motion Ghosts protagonist Henry Hobbes, who is tasked with investigating a murder in 1981 which may have ties to the mysterious death of a cult rock star named Lucas Bell a decade earlier.

The world of Slow Motion Ghosts is one where alternate personas, rituals, and parallel subcultures all factor into the plotline in various ways. Lucas Bell was best-known for his onstage persona, known as “King Lost.” This, in turn, ties in with references from Lucas’s past to a mysterious place known as “Edenville,” which may or may not exist. A group of musicians debates an act that would “conjure up Luke’s spirit”—one of several moments in the novel where Noon suggests the presence of supernatural activity.

While the line between worlds is less overt and literal than it was in Pollen, Noon still makes use of a more metaphorical incarnation of that in Slow Motion Ghosts. Both Edenville and the music scene that Hobbes investigates feel less like subcultures and more like parallel worlds. (One music-scene insider is described as having “the look of a magical creature, something you might glimpse in a forest at twilight.”) The bulk of the novel also finds Hobbes in a kind of exile from many of his colleagues, after criticizing one of his fellow officers for a racist attack.

What makes Slow Motion Ghosts stand out is how well some of Noon’s fictional preoccupations fit into a novel that eschews the more over-the-top imagery and high concepts of his science fictional work. Take it on its own and it’s a gripping mystery—but it also finds him addressing the same themes he has in his speculative work via a different context.

The Nyquist mysteries exist as their own distinct corner of Noon’s bibliography. In some ways, they suggest an author going through a genre (or genres) they love and examining them to figure out what makes them tick.

Throughout these three novels, Noon seems to be enjoying himself with the idea of a recurring detective character. Though there are some overarching plot elements—largely focused on Nyquist attempting to work out the specifics of his memorably screwed-up childhood—each novel has subtle differences.

A Man of Shadows is set in a bizarre city, half of which is perpetually illuminated and half of which is entirely dark. As Nyquist investigates the disappearance of a young woman from a prominent family, Noon punctuates the chapters with excerpts from a fictional guide to the city. Storyville, the setting of The Body Library, is a place where the line between fiction and reality is less porous than simply nonexistent; it’s also a locale with places named after Agatha Christie and Italo Calvino, among others. And Creeping Jenny, the latest installment, finds Nyquist visiting Hoxley-on-the-Hale, a town with a strange system of ritual worship and a wealth of folk horror tropes.

Throughout these books, Noon uses the collision of genres to explore questions of identity, perception, and ritual. A Man of Shadows abounds with references to Greek mythology, including repeated invocations of Apollo and an institution known as the Ariadne Centre. Part of the concept of Dayzone is that nearly everyone there is utilizing their own system for time—and that reality is increasingly fluid as a result.

Here, too, identities blur. The young woman at the center of Nyquist’s case turns out to have a twin sister residing in Dusk, a liminal space between the fully lit and fully darkened sections of the city—and one where several laws of reality no longer apply. In The Body Library, where real and fictionalized versions of certain characters exist in tandem and a mysterious illness places words on people’s skin. Here, shifts in demeanor may be more literal than anything else—in the midst of a conversation, Nyquist notes that “[a] new personality was taking over, a new character, and it wasn’t anything good.”

What takes place on the individual level in The Body Library shifts into a different and communal register in Creeping Jenny. Here, the town abounds by the guidelines of different saints’ days—which can include everything from the wearing of masks to a kind of collective transformation. Nyquist here fits the role of the investigator as outsider—but as anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man can attest, that doesn’t always work out terribly well.

Creeping Jenny takes a subtle swerve in its last quarter, maintaining its sense of folk horror but embracing a kind of speculative element as well. One character refers to the idea of the saints as “a sort of computational device.” This device, then, might serve some higher purpose: “a way of forcing us to experience many different kinds of behavior, a lot of it extreme in nature, on a regular basis, year after year.”

The idea of rituals as a kind of vast psychogeographic machine is the sort of grand and bizarre idea that Noon’s work abounds with. The Nyquist novels at times feel like loving tributes to the genres that shaped their author, but they’re also anything but pastiche. Just as Jeff Noon’s fictional investigators probe the boundaries between the real and the surreal, so too is their author venturing into uncharted realms, and finding out what happens when unexpected stories suddenly converge.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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