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Saturday, December 16th, 2006
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by Jeff Noon

Vurtual Insanity

A review by Gerry Donaghy

It's December, and that means I currently inhabit that literary no-man's land where all the books worth mentioning have already been released and the interesting new books are merely a blip on the horizon. Most titles worth reviewing has already been reviewed to death (Thomas Pynchon's newest being a notable exception, but I haven't made it past the cover), and most of the new books that I'm really excited about aren't coming out until next year.

Faced with a dearth of the current and notable, I'm revisiting a book from one of my favorite authors. For more than a decade, Manchester author Jeff Noon has been penning novels that, like those written by Jonathan Lethem, render any distinction of genre meaningless. Superficially the books are science fiction, in that they posit a futuristic or alternate existence, but they aren't laced with the usual tropes of science fiction such as interplanetary travel, aliens, or techno-fetishisms. Rather Noon uses contemporary settings and pursues a more hallucinatory bent, aligning him more with William S. Burroughs (another genre-crossing author) and Jorge Luis Borges, if they wrote to the rhythms of the early '90s Manchester club scene.

Published in 1993, Vurt was Noon's first novel in a loose trilogy set in a futuristic Manchester. And while it doesn't have quite the polish or the literary and textual audacity of his subsequent works, Vurt still bursts with a youthful and intoxicatingly antiestablishment vigor. The main conceit of the novel is the eponymous drug Vurt, which allows its users to experience the dreams of others in a kind of narco-virtual reality. The delivery device for Vurt is a feather, and different color feathers produce different results, from the pleasantly erotic to the nightmarishly phantasmagoric and everything in between. Scribble, a hardcore user of Vurt, is trying to find his sister/lover (don't ask), whom he lost to the drug. But this loss isn't merely the type that requires an intervention; rather Scribble's sister was physically removed from existence by the drug and replaced with an alien life form that is itself a living drug.

If the description of the book doesn't make sense, reading it will not make things much clearer, as Noon is purposefully ambiguous as to how Vurt is created and how it works beyond the overall effect. What sounds like good old-fashioned LSD actually becomes either a portal to another dimension or consciousness or both. Users have been known to bring venomous snakes back with them from a Vurt experience and unscrupulous Vurt dealers cut the drug to create a neurotoxin that functions like a computer virus on the mind. By focusing less on the science and more on the experience of Vurt, Noon is free let his imagination, as well as the reader's, run rampant.

And just as the Beats' writing style was greatly influenced by bebop jazz improvisations, Noon's technique is informed by the more contemporary musical influences of dub and remixing. Early parts of the text reemerge later in different contexts, or with different characters, or ever-so-slightly reworded, creating situations at once recognizable yet different, all the while maintaining narrative structure. This gives Vurt a more coherent feel than its closest analogue, the cut-up techniques favored by William S. Burroughs. While a book like Burroughs's Naked Lunch is a collage of words shaped into a novel, Vurt is a textual feedback loop with extra reverb.

Thirteen years after its publication, Vurt is still a vibrant reading experience. While some speculative fiction dates horribly (how come the author thought of all of these cool gadgets, but not a cell phone or an mp3 player?), others endure because their authors refuse to wallow in mere genre theatrics and cliché. Vurt is as much a novel of raw youth and the pain of experience as it is a head trip; it's a techno-bildungsroman.

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