Saturday, September 15, 2012


So, once again, because it's gone over pretty well, here are the essentials: Noir by K.W. Jeter is a horrifying, deranged masterpiece that is less cyberpunk and more somewhere uncomfortably between biopunk dystopianism and cosmic horror. With a side of good old-fashioned Burroughs-style paranoia. It's very good, but also very dense, both in detail and plot, to the point that it sometimes comes unhinged and breaks down. The other major bone of contention is the part in the middle of the book where Jeter gleefully describes what happens to copyright offenders, which is one part tract on the glory of copyright (and how anyone who disagrees is a "hippie" and delusional) and one part what the author would like to do to people who pirate intellectual property, all of which comes off as whiny and ranty. Still, while it is a challenging book, it's very well-written, and overall the cool ideas and the way the plot finally comes together overshadow this. I like this book, though you should get it out of the library or borrow it from someone else. It's not worth a buy. Full analysis after the jump.

That's the essence of Noir-- someone's always getting screwed over

           There's a delicate balance that needs to be struck between style and substance, especially in genre fiction. Most authors decide to pack their books full of cool ideas and then skimp on the plot, leaving us drawn into their world but with nowhere to go in it*. Others decide to give their plot a few cool details here and there, but most of these small touches are better-remembered than the actual plot of the novel. Noir by K. W. Jeter...falls a little more to the style side than the substance side, giving us a fantastic world to play around in, but a plot so complex as to leave us completely locked out until later. As I thought that about the book, I debated if it could simply be that in my gravitation towards technology I'd just become anti-intellectual and my attention span had shortened, but it really is just kind of dense and complex to get through. And where sometimes this is a good thing, it also tends to remove the desire to get through the book. But is the book worth the climb? Oh, yes...

          Noir by K. W. Jeter is the story of McNihil, a former copyright enforcer (or "Asp-head", in the book's slang) turned freelancer. McNihil is brought in to investigate the death of a corporate junior executive named Travelt, who was apparently working on some big, top-secret project called TIAC. In the dystopian future of Los Angeles, a future where things have run out of control to the point of corporations being beyond any rules (early in the book there's a sanctioned murder) and property rights being enforced with atrocity (debtors are kept alive and put to work while their body parts are harvested, for one), information is gained by sending biomechanical constructs known as "prowlers" into an area known as "The Wedge" to gain information. Travelt's prowler is still missing in The Wedge, and the corporation he works for wants McNihil to get it back. But everyone knows more than they let on, and McNihil may be walking into more of a trap than he bargained for by taking this job. And if he survives, how much of him would be left?

           So, the first point I'd like to bring up is how wonderful the atmosphere of the book is. It's really the centerpiece and selling point of the novel. Every scene is overflowing with detail, the characters' language helps to feed the tough-talking film noir tone, and every element is put in place to help draw you into the world. It's an oppressive atmosphere, and it fits the book's point that "Noir is the fiction of anxiety", as quoted by the broken-down old pulp author that serves as a sort of central thematic anchor of the book. Everything in the world serves the bleak tone, from the fact that air travel is now almost impossible due to the air being full of homicidal machines known as noh-Flies that "SCARF" (we're never told what this is) metal and rain it down on the pavements below to the bishops of the catholic church, who argue over what happens when you download the "E-charist". Everything in the book serves to make the atmosphere bleak, creepy, and depressing. And it all works for the book.

          Another thing about it is the tone. Noir wears a lot of its influences right on its sleeve, and the tone mixes the right way between lurid details, remaining horrified and paranoid, but also with a black humor streak not usually seen outside of William S. Burroughs. In fact, the tough-guy slang and disjointed dream-like narrative (as well as the Aztec goddess who appears at the beginning and end of the novel) seem to borrow a lot from Burroughs, as well as the paranoid tone and the grisly details of organ-harvesting and the draconian punishments for lawbreakers and debtors.

          Next, the characters are all very well thought-out, and that helps lend to the story. There's a certain Faustian take to the whole novel, with McNihil playing Faust and Harrisch, the corporate executive who gives him the job, playing the devil. Harrisch has a tendency to appear seemingly from nowhere to ask McNihil to do the assignment, bringing thugs in to kick him apart and lean on him. At one point he appears by crane through the side of a train he had tampered with for the very purpose of screwing with the main character. The one odd point with the characters comes in with November, a female freelancer who seems to exist solely to be saved by McNihil and to finally drive the plot towards its eventual conclusion. She seems like more of an afterthought, a plot element to eventually get McNihil to accept Harrisch's offer, and when she finally does do stuff in the book and on screen, she winds up almost falling. A lot. Even the noir author who serves no purpose than to deliver the central theme and help derail the plot does more and is better developed.

            Which brings me to my next point...we get a lot about what the world looks like, but very little about the characters themselves. In fact, outside the world, there isn't really much to the book...the plot tends to meander a lot and at one point stops dead for a full chapter, the characters are given maybe two lines' worth of description and that's all, and while everything's tied up in the last forty pages, it doesn't give a hell of a lot to run on. Jeter seems to think the world he dreamed up is really cool, but doesn't do anything apart from guided tours in the first section, slow plot development in the second, and then finally the point of the book in the third and fourth. Now, Jeter's world is interesting, and his twisted take on film noir is enjoyable, but one can't help but think perhaps the second section should have served as the first, and then the first be interlaced flashbacks throughout, leading up to the ending. It does rob us of an interesting (and kind of nonsensical) section called "Sex Burned a Wire", but it would make for a much stronger book.

            And finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the two major sections that get fairly tracty. The first, around chapter five or six, deals with McNihil confronting a group of "hippies" who squat in an abandoned airplane and say things like "connect isn't a dirty word down here, man..." leading to a passage about how the information age died, and how these idiots kept believing in a better technological future. The second, the infamous "copyright rant" takes up most of chapters six and seven, detailing what McNihil does with a pirate trading in illegal digital copies of books, and then going on a long and gleeful depiction of what happens to copyright infringers-- their cerebrospinal matter is used to create appliances with just enough of their brain matter left to feel pain and fear forever inside of a computer chip. The book stops dead for this section to tell you all about the evils of copyright infringement and how anyone who infringes even unknowingly is a thief and should be charged criminally**, and it was all I could do not to throw the book across the room. When Jeter wants to make a point, he becomes ridiculously unsubtle and attempts to arrange things with a sledgehammer to make it fit. 

          This also leads to an inconsistency of tone. On one end, Jeter wants you to be horrified of the paranoid, nasty, dark world he's created. On the other, he seems to think that many of the insane things they do are just, or at least presents them as such. Further killing the momentum are cool details that he keeps bringing up, though they have no purpose. There is no reason we need a history of the Rail Amalgamation and their secret societies, as it never comes up later. The main character's weird eye-implants, which make everything look like old detective movies in black and white, are brought up several times simply to make sure we don't forget how McNihil sees everything. Jeter even cameos the character he's most known for, Dr. Adder, in a superfluous way, just to put him in there. 

         But, despite all its flaws, I cannot really hate Noir. Yes, it's a deranged book that spends more time on scene-setting than plot; but after a while, the tone engages on some level and carries you along. I felt like the book was brilliant in some places, and it was fantastic looking back on it, but while I was reading it, all I wanted to do was put the book down and go do something a little less insane. It is this inconsistency and the tendency to both love and hate it that makes me want to tell you "Yes, I recommend this book, but please, take it out of the library." I like it, it's flawed, and I can't ever think of anyone wanting to own this. 

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

And others!

*I fall on this end of the scale**. 
**Hey, only one and a half footnotes? I'm softening. Definitely softening.

1 comment:

  1. After re-reading this book, I realized many of the same things you did - particularly the copyright rant.

    But in hindsight with the Napster scandals and stuff - and I'm saying this as a person who enjoys pirated stuff, and knows many pirates, the world's becoming more and more like Jeter's vision of the future.

    This was one of those slick-sexy-oh-so-dark books I liked when it first came out, just because it was The First I read in the genre after the Tek War novels of my youth. The richness of Jeter's prose - similar to Gene Wolfe or yeah, Eco - really captivated me.

    Jeter has other good books, like Dr. Adder and Farewell Horizontal. You'd love those. Way more direct, but with the same hard edge and smokin' hot descriptions. Immediately after reading Noir I glommed onto someone with a credit card so that I could grab all those other Jeter books.

    - Minnie Pax, Jeter fanatic :)