What The Hell Ever Happened To... Jeff Noon?
A young bookseller puts a feather into his mouth...
...and that feather was Vurt, the Aurthur C. Clarke Award winning debut of English novelist Jeff Noon. It was sometime in the late 90's, and the pusher was a friend and co-worker operating in full peer pressure mode. "C'mon, hardly anybody's doing it," she intoned. Her logic appealed to the budding literary elitist in me, so with my friend acting as guide, I took the trip.
I was immediately captivated by the story of Scribble, a man in search of his sister-slash-lover in an alternate reality- a reality accessible only by tickling the back of one's throat with a hallucinogenic feather. It's unique blend of sci-fi, surrealism, and cyberpunk ignited inside me a long dormant flame of passion for genre fiction. That, combined with Noon's playful use of language, left me wanting more as soon as it was over. Can there be any better analogy for the reading experience than addiction and the taking of drugs?*
Lucky for me, copies of the sequel (Pollen) were taking up space on the remainder table, and Automated Alice had recently been published. They both got read, posthaste. But after that, my source dried up, and I had to look elsewhere to score. I started ordering Noon's books from the UK, as they'd hit Old Blighty up to a year before we saw them in the US. You can't spell "important" without "import", and I wore my foreign tastes like a badge of honor. Nymphomation, Pixel Juice, Needle In The Groove, Cobralingus- all were released and purchased in relatively quick succession. Then, in 2002, Noon gave us the dreamy road novel, Falling Out of Cars, which I don't think was ever released in the U.S. After that- nothing.
Six long years went by. There were rumors of theater work, movie adaptations, radio plays- but no novels. Every once in a while I'd put the feelers out, but the trail had pretty much gone cold. Then, in 2008, there was some activity. Jeff gave us some honest to goodness prose with collaborative website, 217 Babel Street. The site featured a constantly updated collection of short stories by four different authors, all taking place inside a fictitious apartment building. As far as I can remember, the site didn't differentiate between which author wrote what, but at least it was something. And you could tell. Noon's distinctive voice shone through. (Noon's contributions to the site are currently archived HERE.)
This was a harbinger of more to come. I was sure of it. But it wasn't long before Babel Street was abandoned and Noon resumed radio silence. Three more years went by. In August of 2011, I contacted the webmaster of what was then Jeff's official site in the hopes of a few crumbs of information. According to that person, the well was dry and he assumed Jeff had quit. This was the beginning of a long period of despair...
...which turned out to be quite brief, because as of mid-September, there was a torrent of activity from the Noon camp. Hallepalujo! Jeff hit us with not one, but two Twitter accounts. @JeffNoon, a feed to meet all your informational Jeff Noon needs; as well as @temp_user9, a repository for Jeff's current experiments in flash fiction and literary remixing. (The user9 micro-stories take place in Sparkletown, two years after the crash of the digital age.) He also launched a new official website, Metamorphiction, which archives the Sparkletown stories and contains information on all Noon projects, future and past. Most importantly, I was assured Noon was working on a new novel. A NOVEL!!!
I reached out to his agent post-posthaste, thanks to the handy contact info on his shiny new website. She put me in touch with the man himself, and this is what he had to say concerning his new novel, the demise of Babel Street, and his time away from the literary world:
The new book is still a secret, still with pages of mist. It’s still a way off to publication. Basically, we’re only just putting together a deal. Sorry for being so reticent.
There was never a break from writing as such, just a period away from the public eye. This happened because I wanted to take a chance on screenwriting. I had reached a certain stage with the novels and needed a change, a fresh approach. So I entered the world of film, tried my hand at a few scripts, had some fun along the way, and a whole lot of frustration. In the end it all got a bit much. But the Creeping Zero script exists and might well be made into a film one day, we shall see. It’s all about raising money and casting and logistics now.
Creeping Zero is based on a story from the Pixel Juice collection. I have also been working on Apparition Park, a screenplay based on material created by myself and Steve Beard. That’s still an ongoing process. I also wrote The Modernists, a theatre play exploring the early days of the Mods. This was put on at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. And then there was a play for Radio 3 called Dead Code: Ghosts of the Digital Age. This last relates to the work I’m currently doing online.
So there was always work, even if it was never very visible. Also during this period, I went through some personal problems. I started to lose my self-confidence and to suffer from panic attacks. I became pretty reclusive at one point. That’s a lot better now, though.
I guess 217 Babel Street collapsed because of entropy, the natural, slow draining away of energy, and erm... artistic differences. It was a collaborative effort and fun for a while, but the four of us were very different from each other, and that’s not exactly ideal, I don’t think. Certainly not for something that relies on improvisation and real-time creation with little chance of editing after the fact. If I did anything like that again, I would try to make sure the writing partners were closer in spirit to begin with. It was an experiment.
Recently I woke up and realised that I hadn’t reached an audience for a long time and it was time to do so. During this period of screenwriting I had still been producing a lot of prose: half finished novels, short stories, lots of experimental pieces- the stuff that really excites me. So I opened up a twitter page: @temp_user9, and started to write fiction again, drawing material from a huge databank that concerned itself with a post-digital world: weird tales, songs, images, brand names for weird products, character studies, maps, poems- a whole bunch of stuff. The Dead Code radio play was drawn from this material. The Sparkletown stories continue this datamining: half heard pirate radio stations, ghost music, flickering glowbugs, synthetic angels, weird audio devices, the broken spirits of communication and signal. I love this stuff!
After setting up the twitter page, I worked with expert coder and designer Curtis McFee to create the main site: Metamorphiction. I wanted to really concentrate on content, making that as rich and as juicy as possible. Working in film had been very intensive in terms of being edited all the time, and constantly being asked to do rewrites, so now I just wanted to go mad and to put stuff out there. I want the site to build and build into a mad laboratory, a storage department for curiosities, a place filled with demos and experiments and lab floor residue and half-built language engines. Basically, to overflow the banks of the site with material.
I’ve always loved remixing and transforming text, exploring the wordscapes and borderzones of dub fiction. So the remix manual I posted on the metamorphiction site, “The Ghost on the B-Side”, is a first attempt at revealing some of the actual creative, avant-pulp writing techniques behind what I do, or try to do.
I have a lot of plans for the site. So keep tuned!
*Yes, I understand hallucinogens aren't physically addicting. I'm taking liberties for the sake of my metaphor.
PS, kids- don't do drugs.
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