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Falling Out of Cars
Jeff Noon
Black Swan, 380 pages

Falling Out of Cars
Jeff Noon
Jeff Noon studied Combined Arts (Painting and Drama) at Manchester University. In his final year, he wrote a play about the aftermath of the Falklands War. Woundings went on to win a Mobil Prize and was performed at the R oyal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where he was writer-in-residence for 18 months. To support himself, he took a job at Waterstone's bookshop in Manchester. While there, a writing request resulted in Vurt, which won him the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 1994. Noon is the author of four other novels: Pollen, Automated Alice, Nymphomation, and Needle in the Groove; and a collection of short stories, Pixel Juice.

Jeff Noon Website
SF Site Review: Vurt
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

What plot there is in Jeff Noon's latest novel revolves around Marlene, a journalist grieving for her dead daughter, and three companions, an ex-thug named Peacock, an ex-soldier named Henderson, and a teenager named Tupelo. They, or perhaps the world around them, are sick with a disease that doesn't have a name, but manifests itself as something called noise -- which, like the static on a phone line, interrupts signals as they move between transmitter and receiver, obscuring everything with hiss and crackle. The world is still there, behind the corrupted messages of the senses, but it can't be understood: words can't be read and music can't be followed and photos can't be interpreted and mirrors have grown terrifying, for to look in them is to fail to recognize what you see. A drug called Lucidity (which advertises itself with billboards that say "If you can read this, it means you're alive"), provides some respite -- though even with their daily Lucy, most people become steadily sicker.

Marlene and the others are on a road trip, hunting for the fragments of a mirror. This job has been given them by a mysterious collector, who wants to reassemble the mirror. Is the mirror Alice's mirror, the Through the Looking Glass mirror, which somehow has been shattered? The collector seems to think so; healed, he thinks the mirror will have some great power. He has given Marlene precise instructions, which she holds like a talisman, a spar of meaning in the rising flood of noise... but as she and her companions drive their failing car through a world hallucinatorily transformed both by noise and by their own increasingly unreliable perceptions, the quest, like everything else, slowly becomes incomprehensible.

Some surreal novels are like puzzles; scattered clues and symbols enable you to decipher them, or to guess at what the author is trying to say. But Falling Out of Cars defies this sort of analysis. Marlene's quest, revealed through the increasingly disjointed first-person narration of her diary, spins out in a series of musings, free associations, and bizarre dream-like scenes that, both in themselves and in the way they follow (or don't follow) on one another, give the sense of being pregnant with a meaning that's just within reach, but stubbornly resists revealing itself. This is a novel as opaque as the solipsistic worlds of fractured perception into which noise forces its victims. Is it an exploration of the unreliability of self-perception, the subjectivity of communication? A meditation on semiotics? A portrait of a grieving parent's longing for a lost child? A portrayal of a failing mind's descent into madness? A deconstruction of linear narrative? Yes. And no. Even as one identifies these themes, one has the sense that they're not the point. Or more accurately, that identifying them is not the point.

An example: the recurring references to Through the Looking Glass. These rise up out of the book periodically and then sink back into it, like the images in the lost mirror fragments -- Marlene's quest, the characters' chess-playing (in which one of the pieces sometimes stands for Alice), a battered edition of Through the Looking Glass with a poignant added chapter, in which Alice pines for the world beyond the mirror and we learn how the mirror may have come to be shattered. The reader wants to put these things together, to make symbolic sense of them. But when, late in the book, Marlene finally explains to Tupelo why the collector wants the mirror fragments and what he thinks reassembling them will accomplish, we don't find out what she says. The fact that she speaks is conveyed, but her speech is not. If there's any key to this book at all, it's this deliberate stripping of meaning.

Falling Out of Cars works best if you accept from the start that you won't be able to make linear sense of it, and experience it instead as a gathering of shimmering images, a series of uncanny and strangely beautiful episodes, from which each reader will take away his or her own unique and incommunicable perception. A perfect parallelism, in other words, of form and content.

If you can read it, you are alive.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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