Set in a distorted, near-future Manchester, Jeff Noon’s novel tells the story of Scribble’s quest for his sister and lover, Desdemona, who he has lost in the Vurt. The Vurt is an alternative (or virtual/vurtual) reality which can serves as a metaphor for drug-induced visions, cyberspace, and perhaps the human imagination itself. Access to the Vurt is achieved through imbibing different coloured feathers laced with manufactured dreams. Scribble, a member of a gang of self-styled renegades called the Stash Riders, seeks the elusive, illegal, and highly dangerous feather known as Curious Yellow for it is only by accessing the higher realms of Vurt that he can hope to rescue Desdemona.
So assured is the author’s narrative voice that it is easy to forget that this was Noon’s first novel. Its various influences are fairly obvious, ranging from maturing 1990s cyberpunk, Philip K Dick’s altered state novels, Alice in Wonderland, touches of J.G. Ballard and Clive Barker, and even the invented argot of the youth gangs in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Noon, however, masterfully welds them together into something fresh, innovative, and uniquely his own. This is a novel that delights in transgression, whether it is the incestuous love affair between Scribble and his lost sister, or a cityscape populated by hybrids such as shadow girls, dog men, robo-crusties, and the fantastical Vurt creatures that are pulled through to our reality in exchange for humans seeking experiences and escape in the opposite direction. The emphasis on blurring boundaries, breaking laws and taboos, and rejecting pure states (such as being merely human) means Vurt plays as much to the punk as the cyber elements within its cyberpunk narrative.
In an otherwise masterful piece of storytelling the only aspect that felt slightly mishandled was the awkward shift in Scribble’s character in the second half of the novel. Having been a rather passive figure for the first 150 pages or so, he abruptly transforms into a more assertive individual, taking charge of the Stash Riders and his quest, to the point where he ultimately achieves a form of apotheosis within the Vurt. However, when weighed against the dazzling literary fireworks that are consistently on display through the novel this is a relatively minor grumble.
The three short stories that have been added to this twentieth anniversary edition make only tangential reference to characters from the original novel but they are all finely crafted gems that make welcome additions to Noon’s world building. Vurt offers its readers a host of original visions even as it riffs off the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Like one of Noon’s dream feathers, it is well worth consuming this book for it transports you to a richly imagined world of distorted realities and twisted fantasy. Its highly inventive blend of poetic and grotesque imagery lingers in the mind like the residue of a powerful dream.
Vurt by Jeff Noon
Published April 10, 2014 by Tor
Paperback: 400 pages
Review by Karl Bell
9/10 from 1 reviews
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