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Falling Out Of Cars
Jeff Noon
Transworld paperback £6.99

review by Tom Matic

It is difficult to categorise Falling Out Of Cars by genre, let alone by sub-genre. If you want to use that kind of terminology, its subject matter makes it a post-apocalyptic road novel, but Mad Max it is not. Jeff Noon has remarked on the problems of importing the road novel from the vast open spaces of its natural home America to our relatively cramped island. However, as with many of Noon's fictions, the writer's focus is not so much outer space as inner space - the mental landscape his characters inhabit.
   And it is as much about the car as the road. The novel's title alludes to the abandoned cars that litter the roadside in the strange England that Noon describes. As his narrator Marlene remarks, the abandoned car is a common indicator of social breakdown in SF, one that has lost its romantic allure for her now that it has become such a frequent and mundane event. She herself seeks refuge in the car at moments of crisis. And there are many of these. For this England is in the grip of an unnamed sickness that affects people's minds, so that simple day-to-day activities that we take for granted are no longer possible. Most notably, the simple act of looking into a mirror can lead to insanity and death, as your senses are assailed by 'the noise'.
   Marlene has been sent on a mysterious assignment, accompanied by a dysfunctional couple, Peacock and Henderson, and later by an enigmatic teenager, called Tupelo. As they travel through England on their quest, road signs quite unlike those we are used to and yet oddly familiar confront them. One of the signs says, 'Drivers! Have you taken your Lucidity?' It is an echo of the 'Tiredness Can Kill' signs that urge drivers to take a coffee break, but it refers to the drug nicknamed 'Lucy' that the population now relies on to stay sane. Another roadside advert for the Company that provides the drug has a picture of an eye, together with the slogan that provides the eerily suggestive catchphrase for the novel: 'if you can read this, it means you are alive.'
   This is a test that Marlene initially fails, as 'the letters kept dissolving each other.' Indeed throughout her narrative, the written word seems to be undergoing a kind of meltdown. She visits a place called the Museum of Fragile Things, where she tries to read a book: 'And one by one, as my eye scanned them, as my tongue pronounced them, each word faded from the page of the book.'
   She even sees this happening to her own journal, a notebook with thin paper that allows the ink to seep through the pages, and where pages keep getting torn out and stuck back in different places. Nevertheless, like Scribble in Vurt, she seeks refuge in this imperfect, infected world of words.
   Through Marlene, Noon writes of an immense accumulation of images and information, 'a glut of billboards and panels where images danced', an echo of Nymphomation's 'blurbvurts'. As Marlene puts it, 'the more I looked, the less I could see'. It also shows how images are turned against us - not just mirrors but also photographs, and the essentially human quality of self-consciousness that the mirror represents. And as the images pile up it seems, the word is in retreat. For the most part language is pared down to the bare minimum needed to convey information, such as the shops 'called things like Butcher, or else Baker, or even Product.' This verbal impoverishment even extends to the hitchhiker's sign that says 'wherever'!
   Echoing this theme, Noon's prose style is noticeably more subdued than in the past, with very little of the verbal acrobatics, word splicing and punning that characterised novels like Nymphomation. This is not to say that Noon's use of language has lost its vitality. His trademark mixture of lyricism and streetwise dialogue gains an intensity and maturity from the conscious avoidance of showiness. Rather than a source of pure pleasure, writing is presented as a way of surviving the often-corrosive human power of self-consciousness, making this a very self-reflexive novel without being heavy-handed about it. Marlene may be as much Noon's alter ego as Scribble or Zenith O'Clock, but she also writes about herself in the third person.
   So while Falling Out Of Cars might at first seem like a departure for Noon, there are many echoes of his previous work, such as the bereaved writer-narrator of Vurt and the preoccupation with information overload in Nymphomation. Returning to the similarities between Marlene and Scribble, both have lost a loved one. The death of Marlene's daughter, killed by the noise of her own heartbeat, chillingly brings home what the 'sickness' can do to people. However, whereas in Vurt the drug apparently takes you out of reality, in Falling Out Of Cars it is supposed to help keep you there. However, the vurt feather dream world can be more harsh and unforgiving than the real one, while the 'Lucy' helps to soften the edges of the 'noise': it filters out the excess information our senses are required to process, to 'keep it sweet' as Peacock puts it.
   Falling Out Of Cars also features Noon's omnipresent fictional guest star, who was given a starring role in one of his earlier novels Automated Alice, an imagined third Alice fantasy by Lewis Carroll. Given the novel's transformation of mirrors into objects of terror, it is natural that Alice Through The Looking Glass is the novel referred to here, with an imagined 13th chapter written by Marlene. It becomes clear that the Holy Grail that the travellers are hunting for may be Alice's mirror, shattered in pieces and scattered around the country. This is especially problematic, as they must handle the fragments without looking into them. Given the deadliness of mirrors in the time of the 'sickness', it is hardly surprising that broken mirrors are a recurring image throughout the novel, their shards dipped in blood. And the way in which that recurring image is eventually linked with one of the novel's other recurring images, the eye, is definitely not for the fainthearted...
   Appropriately given this theme, the novel has a disturbingly fractured quality. But despite its apparent bleakness, its offers glimpses of hope, such as the boys who have found a way to live with the 'sickness' (by 'playing' it in an amusement arcade), and in the mechanical spider slowly making its way around its damaged web repairing the broken strands. Images like these, offering an inspired blend of the real and the unreal, the mundane and the metaphysical, are among the qualities that make this a novel to treasure.

Related item:
tZ  Jeff Noon - Living In A Gloopy World by Tom Matic

Falling Out Of Cars

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