Monday, September 1, 2014


                        It astonishes me that Jeff Noon has flown under the radar in this country for this long. His bizarre mix of post-cyberpunk, bio-punk, and hallucinatory fantasy is certainly unconventional in places, but in a genre fiction market where we've obsessed over victorian fantasy, zombies, vampires, and gritty medieval political fantasy for far too long, a voice like Noon's could be a breath of fresh air. If, that was, it wasn't drowned out by louder, more well-known voices. With his work, Jeff Noon creates brightly-colored and unsettlingly dark worlds that just border on assaulting the senses with colors, smells, sounds, and tastes. He layers these on top of bizarre crime stories about things that don't exist yet, like an illegal trade in hallucinogenic dimension-bending feathers or trying to hack a national lottery using black magic and unorthodox math. The result is a disorienting mix of weird visuals, strange plotlines, and despicable characters that comes together in something incredibly readable. 

                      And Nymphomation is easily the most accessible of his books, barring his tripped-out short story collection Pixel Juice, a strange mix of experimental stories. Its lack of jargon, more sympathetic cast, focused plot, and a more conventional, grounded approach to plotting than his free-associative works like Vurt and Pollen. But more than being just "most accessible", it's a well-written introduction to one of genre fiction's most criminally underrated authors. It's an odd look at cyber-culture that barely sets foot online. And, above all else, it is brilliant. It's twisted, unsettling in places, and flat-out wrong at times, but I've never read nothing else like it. 

More, as always, below.

"Open all channels. Connect to everything."
- Joe Crocus

"Domino Day, lucky old Manchester!"
- First Lines

                    Nymphomation begins with Manchester. In the near future, a company known as the AnnoDomino corporation starts a lottery game known as Domino Bones. With their biomechanical "blurbflies" filling the air with slogans and chants,, the corporation has the entire town in a frenzy for the game, a game involving constantly-shifting dominoes and the chance to make almost insane amounts of money. Every week, the hosts of the show, Tommy Tumbler and Cookie Luck, make all of Manchester hang on their every word, their every move, as the constantly shifting game pieces slowly resolve themselves into a pattern, a pattern that dictates what prizes are up for the week. Among the various punters are Jazir, a waiter with ambitions of being something of a hacker entrepeneur; Daisy, a brilliant but oftentimes unmotivated math student; The Dark Fractals, a team of advanced math-student hackers whose purpose in life is to merge occult sciences and the supernatural with their higher-level math knowledge and bisexual sex; and a young urchin named Celia Hobart whose number always seems to come up when she holds her lucky feather. 

                      But of course, all is not how it seems in Manchester. AnnoDomino is a corporation with many secrets and an almost rabid desire to protect them all to the death. Someone is killing off people who have multiple partial wins and faking them as jealousy killings. The ghost of a math teacher keeps appearing to Jazir and giving him cryptic messages to "grab the wings". The Dark Fractal Society brings Daisy into the fold with the intention of hacking Domino Bones to shut the game down once and for all before it can realize a far more sinister purpose. 

And then things get weird.

                     Jazir gets bitten by one of the floating advertisements around the city and discovers that their blood makes a universal lubricant and "skeleton key". Max Hackle, the professor behind the Dark Fractal society, realizes that the game is based on research he did decades ago combining computer hacking with math and sex. And all of it, all of it has to do with a math class taught by a woman named Miss Sayer with an unusual focus on probability. But AnnoDomino has tools and tricks all its own, and it's been playing the game for a very long time...

                      The first thing I love about Nymphomation is simple. The feel. Each chapter begins with a look at Manchester on the day of the drawing for Domino Bones, a view of the city on a day where it's at its most frenzied and most alive, and takes the reader through the streets. Noon never bothers too much with exposition, instead getting people to pick up on things through context and available information. While there is barely any description of the ubiquitous "blurbflies", they're felt as much as anything else, allowing for the image of oversized bugs with nasty hidden mandibles that fight each other over the messages they carry. When Noon introduces a concept of the city, he doesn't explain it, he just puts it forth and lets it be felt. There's an odd interplay between the abstract and the concrete that works in the book's favor, never describing anything fully, but just describing it enough

                   Tied into that, Noon deals with a lot of sensations. The first thing in the book the reader experiences, after the opening paragraphs in Manchester, is the smells of the curry restaurant below Daisy's flat where Jazir works. While not much of that restaurant, the Golden Samosa, is described within the text, the few glimpses one does get make up for it. This, combined with Noon's description of the blurbflies swirling around the city singing their jingles, creates an excellent portrait of smells and sounds that describes it fairly well. One character, Frank Scenario, is only described through how he moves and sings and how he postures. Through these sensations, a lot of the sensory input actually enhances the few descriptions there. There's a brilliantly unsettling moment where one of the characters covers themselves in blurbfly blood (which for the rest of the book they call "Vaz", this will appear in later installments) and tries to leap out a window while being nuzzled by flies in a vaguely sexual manner, and most of what's going on is conveyed with touch. It brings a welcoming tactility to the book.

                 Unfortunately, sometimes this tactility goes too far. There's quite a bit of body-horror in Nymphomation, most of it tied around some very squicky scenes involving the Dark Fractal Society and their eventual fate during the war with the AnnoDomino corporation. Noon's writing style reminds me of a character in the comic series Chew, who writes restaurant reviews so good people can taste her food...but also writes reviews that pan restaurants so hard they're vomit-inducing. With his vivid details and his sensory sensibilities set on "overload", Noon creates a very sensory world, but at times it can be absolutely disorienting and strange. Especially in the last few pages when both groups' efforts reach a fever pitch, it gets kind of icky. Still intriguing, but also kind of tricky. 

                 The plot also falls apart in the last twenty or so pages, when the plans are finally revealed. The climax honestly feels rushed, and in a book where so much of it has been methodical and kind of dreamlike, for a sudden slam-bang tense climax to come out of nowhere in the end of the book to tie up all the loose ends in the story just feels...false. Wrong. Unusual, but in a bad way. The reveal of who everyone is and what's going on feels a little sloppy, like Noon thought someone would figure out the cues before he revealed the ending, and decided to put something else into play, just so he could maintain the tension of the piece.

                     But these are minor quibbles in the overall work. Nymphomation is an excellent crime thriller, an insane fever dream through an unsettling version of the future that works on multiple levels, and if the only problem I had was that it felt a little rushed, that's a problem that isn't terrible to have. You should read this book. Noon is an author that deserves the world's attention, and the world deserves someone with this original and strange a voice. 

I leave you now with this:

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth...

Vurt by Jeff Noon
- Pollen by Jeff Noon
- Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad

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