This debut novel by Jeff Noon had me in it's drug-fuelled grip from the very beginning. The plot is simple enough: young man is searching for his missing sister. But there's so much more to it than that. Because this is an alternate Manchester in which dreams can be purchased and relived, in which 'feathers' are applied to the back of the throat to open the world of Vurt - a virtual fantasy land where dreams become reality, like some avian LSD. And the missing sister, Desdemona, has vanished into this world. To make things even more complicated, Scribble, the brother, was with his sister when she disappeared and the love between brother and sister is more than familial.
Scribble, so called because he is always writing, is the main character: this is his story. It's no accident that scribble sounds like scribe, because this is what he is: recording the tale of his search for the feather that led to Desdemona's disappearance, and so the tale of him and his friends and Vurt.
This novel is about a great many things. But mostly it is about loss. A loss of innocence (Scribble and Desdemona are lovers), loss of friends or family (several characters die or disappear), loss of love. The story begins with the loss of Desdemona and ends with her loss as well, but in a very different way. It's also about what's real. In its layers of unreality the book most closely reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis's novels, particularly American Psycho and Glamorama. The narrative is punctuated with violent episodes in the real world and dreamlike excursions into Vurt, like Ellis's Glamorama but in reverse. But we never know quite what is real and what isn't. The book begins and ends with the mysterious 'A boy puts a feather into his mouth...' and '... A boy takes a feather out of his mouth' and an interjection from the Game Cat, an almost omniscient character that comments on the world of Vurt, seems to suggest the whole thing is a Vurt dream.
Then there is the question of how real Vurt is. It affects the real world of Manchester, when humans, such as Desdemona, disappear a Vurt being is substituted. In fact there is a very complicated sum by which the beings swapped must be of the same value, but no one knows how that value is measured. And how real is Manchester? This is a world of hybrid human/dogs, robo/humans, robo/dogs. Where shadowgirls can read minds and the 'pure' are few and far between. Where cops carry guns, TV is obsolete and the biggest rap star is a dogboy.
Noon's use of language is phenomenal. The book races along like a kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride, each word as scintillatingly lovely as the fractal colours that herald one character's death. The writing is tight with not a word wasted and the imagery, even when describing violent shoot-outs or scenes of dilapidation, is beautiful.