Jeff Noon’s debut novel, 1993’s Vurt, is a wiiiiild ride. An action packed story filled with psychedelic imagery and punchy language, the most intriguing reason to buy a ticket is, however, its unique premise—an epithet of science fiction increasingly difficult to achieve. This is not to say that the entirety of the novel is original (the genre influences are readily visible) but that it’s impossible for the reader to walk away—smiling or frowning—without having an indelible mark on their memory. At turns poetic, entertaining, colorful, sensational, and always speculative, letting a Curious Yellow tickle the back of your throat will take you to a variety of places.
On the surface, or at least one of the surfaces, Vurt is the story of Scribble. A young junkie, he and his crew, the Stash Riders, spend their days tripping inside vurt and trying to find illegal feathers, feathers that will take them on a vurt trip like they’ve never had before. Seeking out the dangerous blacks and yellows and tickling a pink when they need a little sensuality, they often run afoul of the law, something their leader, the fun but abusive Beetle, has no trouble dealing with in their crash-tight van. Drowning in the pleasure to the point of loneliness, Scribble’s biggest trouble in life is still his lost sister, Desdemona. Haunting his memories, she was lost inside a very dangerous feather called Curious Yellow—a feather Scribble is seeking so that he may try to rescue her. But finding another Curious Yellow proves difficult, the quest leading him further from his real self.
From the drop of the flag on page one, Noon drives Vurt with the narrative pedal to the medal. Captured perfectly is the Kerouac madness of living in the moment, adrenaline pumping when life burns hot. (The Stash Riders crashing through the streets of Manchester is just classic.) It is an understatement to say the plotting is brisk. However, it is largely the bombastic, visual usage of language which serves to keep the pace churning. In a feather here, popping out there, dreamsnake slithering here, kissing you there—what is at first a two-reality setting slowly expands into realities that not even Scribble can put a finger on, all manner of scenes and possibilities evolving, pushing the story forward.
The storyline itself highly stylistic and readily enjoyable, there are additional points of Vurt to recommend. Perhaps the most positive is the multitude of ways it can be interpreted. On the surface a rip-roaring cyberpunk tale that shows an author well steeped in the sub-genre’s lore, also adding color are heavy doses of Jorge Luis Borges, Lewis Carroll, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs and Hindu-esque demonology. A layer beneath, it’s possible to read the book as an anti-establishment piece: the system is fucked and the little guys, guys who just want to have a little fun, are being trampled on. Parallel to this layer, though in a different dimension, it’s also possible to read the book as a phantasmagorical retelling of the hero’s tale. Cast out of society into the forbidden knowledge of the underworld (or in this case, an innerworld), any return to the land of the living (or thereabouts) is bound to be with a new perspective on life (or thereabouts). At a humanist level, it’s also possible to read the book as slow, personal descent into despair—a narcotics-engulfed hell that zags when best intentions zig. No matter which of these or any other understanding that appeals, that such a rich variety of coherent allusion and metaphor is available certainly speaks well of the book.
Thus, if there are faults to the novel, it must be along style lines. Some of the metaphors are a bit gonzo and do not seem to fit the moment. Among other examples, at one point a gun is described as a ‘hard-on’ in a scene that entirely lacks sexuality. Tagging behind this exaggerated (mis)use of symbolism is the contrast between poetic and expository elements. It’s possible for the pair to coexist in harmony, but Noon sometimes places the two side by side without paying attention to the smoothness of flow between, or whether the context can handle such literary tricks. I should emphasize that this is not the main mode of storytelling, just that occasionally the line between art and storytelling is a little stilted. The third style point is the usage of Game Cat. At first fitting between the chapters as a sort of beat poet info dump, his presence fades when Noon no longer needs him to supply the reader with background info. It’s possible that this narrative choice could have been used more consistently, perhaps something similar to how John Brunner used Chad C. Mulligan in Stand on Zanzibar. As such, it would have at least felt less contrived.
In the end, Vurt is one of those books whose imagery sticks in the mind long after the book has been finished. That content is likewise substantial gives the book merit. A few of the action scenes are over the top, but when taken in the larger picture, are only a drop in the dynamic bucket when thinking upon the meaning of vurt and how it relates to the characters reality—or realities. Though at times reading like a Gibson/Burroughs novel, the book I most often returned to for comparison is interestingly Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground. Each a psychedelic trip described in visual, stimulating style, fans of Vandermeer’s novel will want to check out Noon’s, and vice versa. For those who wondered what Vonda McIntyre's dreamsnakes actually did, Vurt may provide the answer? With each story’s structure offering surreal transcendence, William Rosencrans’ The Epiphanist likewise bears resemblance.