David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”

Jeff Noon's 'Vurt'This book review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper on April 12, 1995.

British writer Jeff Noon’s debut novel Vurt takes pulp science fiction to a new level. It’s not necessarily a better level, mind you, but it’s certainly a more twisted, doped-up, glazed-over, trip-inducing place than sci-fi has been in a long while.

In Noon’s near-future Manchester, England, vurt is the designer drug of choice for a generation of punks and slackers living off the government dole. Administered by sucking on a special kind of hallucinogenic feather, vurt transports the user into an alternate reality that’s a shotgun wedding of the Internet and virtual reality technology. Depending on the shade of color you’ve sucked down, the vurt world can be a pornographers’ paradise or a land of primal wish-fulfillment or a horrific reenactment of your past from which there is no escape.

It’s this last category that has proven the bane of vurt junkie (and narrator) Scribble, who’s lost his sister Desdemona somewhere in the labyrinths of the mythical feather Curious Yellow. By the rules of exchange which govern interaction with vurtspace, Scribble has brought back to reality instead a slobbering mass of alien flesh he drolly calls the Thing from Outer Space. Only by bringing the Thing back into the Curious Yellow dimension can Scribble barter for his sister’s release.

Finding Curious Yellow again proves quite a task, however, in a future England where reality has taken a ride on the wild side. Cybercops and shadowcops prowl the streets in search of illegal vurt dealers, human and dog freely intermingle and interbreed, sisters sleep with brothers, and dark corners abound with “dreamsnakes” escaped from the vurt dimensions. It’s enough to generate a spontaneous acid flashback.

Noon’s brilliance lies in how he recognizes the inherent silliness of all this and plays into it. Vurt spins its tangled plot out with a melodramatic seriousness that convinces you for extended periods of time that this isn’t all just bubblegum. Like a vurt drug itself, Vurt reaches deep inside the id for gripping, pleasing, must-turn-the-page images and throws morals and messages to the wind.

Pleasantly absent from Noon’s future vision is the typical assortment of high-tech gizmos and whatchacallits that lazier science fiction authors pawn off as imagination. In the Manchester of Vurt, what’s organic and what’s electronic has become as indistinguishable as what’s real and what’s “vurt.” It’s all one big orgy of psychedelic confusion that recalls the quirky surrealism of Naked Lunch or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as much as the hard-wired Chiba City of Neuromancer.

In a way, the book itself slyly disclaims responsibility for its jarring visceral overload by suggesting that you, the reader, have been hallucinating the entire thing and are partly responsible for its content. It’s a sly take on the line fed to us by countless B-grade movie producers and schlock television execs, updated for the quick-fix ’90s generation.

And you may find yourself agreeing with Noon on this point when you realize how quickly you scarfed down the book’s 350 pages like a six-year-old buried neck deep in Halloween candy.

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  2. nate on May 10, 2009 at 2:26 am  Chain link

    Everytime I find a yellow feather on the ground I go to my locally owned bookstore and buy a copy of Vurt and give to a friend who hasn’t read it yet, with the feather to use as a bookmark and a note written in the book to the recipiant stating they will know what the feather is for and what to do with it when the time comes. A few have even admitted to sticking the feather in there mouths when they finnished the book “just to see if it was a Curious”

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