THE BODY LIBRARY by Jeff Noon
Angry Robot, 382 page p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
It is often stated that everyone has a book in them, though as it has also been observed, it is not always a good idea to try and let it out. Storyville is a city where every inhabitant is aware that they are part of a story. They expect and are expected to be part of the narrative that underlies the city.
Followers of Jeff Noon’s fiction may have come across John Nyquist in A Man of Shadows. In this equally surreal book, Nyquist has set up his investigation business in Storyville and has been given the job of shadowing Patrick Wellborn, an apparently simple if boring task. When Wellborn goes into a tower block (Melville Five), Nyquist follows in an attempt to see who he is visiting. This is where the strangeness begins. The building is a maze. A boy, Calvin, directs him to apartment 67. Inside is a tree growing up through the floor and out of the ceiling. While there Nyquist is attacked, retaliates and kills the attacker who turns out to be Wellborn. In the next room is Zelda, a prostitute who was waiting for Wellborn. The two flee, but cannot find a way out of the building. When he does finally get out, he doesn’t know how, or where Zelda is but he has been told about a manuscript called The Body Library. This is the source of all the weirdness.
In Storyville, where all the streets, buildings and plazas have names with literary connections, narrative officers call at intervals to check on what stories the residents are involved in. Nyquist’s assigned officer is Bella Munroe. She reminds him that concealing parts of narratives is an offence. He worries that he is found out when he is taken to view a body. It is Zelda’s rather than Wellborn’s. Although the death looks like suicide, Nyquist becomes convinced that it is murder. However, in a place where people’s stories are interlinked, nothing can be taken as read.
This novel is surreal and the blame for that lies in the manuscript of The Body Library. It was created by cutting and pasting fragments of other books, a process that has given it unique qualities. Pages, if burned and the smoke inhaled, cause an addiction, the fragments of narrative seeping into the cells and manifesting as words writhing across the skin almost like a progressive infection. Only the destruction of the manuscript will cure the situation. This makes the narrative sound simple but the situation inside Melville Five complicates matters and the solution appears related to it.
With a novel of this complexity, it is difficult to convey the nuances and references within it. Noon is a clever writer and deserves to receive the attention of an intelligent reader.