Into the groove
Needle in the Groove
Jeff Noon Anchor, 287pp, £9.99
Among the many myths perpetuated by cultural elitists is the idea that literature and genre fiction are antithetical. With the arguable exception of crime writing, no genre suffers more unjustly in this respect than science fiction. Despite Kafka, Ballard, Wells, Carter, Orwell, Huxley, Wyndham, Atwood (in The Handmaid's Tale), Vonnegut and others, it is still largely dismissed as the preserve of Nerd Boy and Anorak Man. Among the best of the current writers to challenge this misconception is Jeff Noon. Since his debut, Vurt - winner of the 1994 Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction - he has produced an energetic body of work that fuses sci-fi and mainstream rhythms. He is a better writer now, too. The storytelling is slicker; the characterisation deeper; the prose more controlled; the unity of theme and content more coherent. If you have read nothing by Noon, then Needle in the Groove, his fifth novel, and Pixel Juice, a story collection newly published in paperback, will introduce you to a range of his talent. If you are already a fan, these latest volumes will nourish your admiration.
What snags the attention in Needle in the Groove is the typography: no capital letters, no speech marks and the replacement of full stops with forward slashes. This last, less common device combines with the snappy language to create a melodic beat to a work that is, after all, about music. Music that, in Noon's futuristic world, can be recorded on to - or into - small globes of liquid. One shake and the suspended filaments of guitar, drums and vocals are swirled into a new configuration. Thus there is no permanent, definitive version of the song, but the potential for endless permutation, for infinite remix.
But don't be put off by all the techno wizardry and breaches of typographical convention - underneath lies a relatively straightforward plot. A bass player, elliot, joins a band at the cutting edge of the new music and falls for the singer, donna, who happens to be hitched to the drummer. Amid the complications of the romantic triangle, the band members fuel their experimentation by siphoning off music-saturated fluid from the globes for narcotic purposes. Tripping hallucinogenically, they dredge up enough damage from their respective pasts to alter, fatally, their present.
Drugs, music and formal invention characterise the 50 pieces in Pixel Juice. But, in a compilation, Noon has more scope than in a novel to exercise his fictional versatility. The variety and quality of the writing styles is impressive; the quantity of brilliant one-hit ideas astounding. From the discovery of an "on-off" switch for the human body, to a boy called Quentin with an allergy to the letter Q, to children receiving clones of themselves as playthings, these stories explore life in modern Britain, but not as we know it.
In these books, as in previous works, Noon is at once original and rooted in the evolution of science fiction, in its broadest sense, as a forum for the avant-garde. His dystopian, near-future Manchester is an alternative world as well realised as any of Calvino's imagined cities. His scenes of drug-skewed surrealism bear comparison with the nightmare visions of William Burroughs. Above all, Noon demonstrates that, in an age of cultural, technological and biological flux, the traditional formulas of the genre lend themselves better than ever to a scrutiny of the nature of human existence. Attach whatever label you like to Noon's writing, but this is literary innovation - and there is little enough of that going on at the moment for these books to be a cause for celebration.