Within Without by Jeff Noon
Angry Robot, pb, £8.77
Reviewed by Robin C.M. Duncan
Within Without is the fourth John Nyquist novel by paragon of the cyber-weird, Jeff Noon. It is preceded by A Man of Shadows (2017), The Body Library (2018), and Creeping Jenny (2020), each a distinctive and enjoyably kaleidoscopic head-frag, deep-fried in enigma, wrapped in yesterday’s pulp noir mystery.
Noon began rattling the cage of British SFF in 1993 with his Clarke Award-winning debut novel Vurt, a compelling jaunt through the cyberpunk hinterland of the author’s Möbiec imagination. Followed in 1995 by Pollen (a sequel), Automated Alice (1996 – a “trequel”, the author informs us, and not that Alice’s last appearance in Noon’s stories) then 1997’s Nymphomation (a prequel).
John Nyquist is a hard-wearing detective for hire, a relentlessly put-upon soul who has suffered Dayzone’s endless illumination / Nocturna’s endless night pursuing an invisible killer in A Man of Shadows; the perpetually manifesting personal fictions of Storyville’s residents in The Body Library; and arguably one of the most nightmarish (literally) novel premises of recent times haunting the village of Hoxley-on-the-Hale in Creeping Jenny.
At least this time around, the long-suffering Nyquist has help on hand in the form of his new and relentlessly enthusiastic assistant, young Teddy Fairclough, whom he first encounters in Creeping Jenny. Within Without opens on our duo arriving in Delirium – a city of innumerable boundaries – to take on the case of Vince Craven, a singer and actor whose image has gone missing.
What follows is a marvellously intricate tale, high on hallucinatory tableaus and bristling with Noon’s urgent and engaging beat narrative. The story cleaves to its detective framework, for the first third or so at least, but does thereafter find its way over a wall and under a fence into the febrile fields of Mr Noon’s imagination, unchained.
And Noon, arguably, is the modern master of such twisty-turny mindscapes. The reading cannot be described as comfortable: readers desiring literal, linear, logical events, beware. But this is – as fans of the Nyquist stories would demand – a stream of hyperconscious mental callisthenics, woven so well, so finely, that it will sweep you along if you allow it and reward you richly for taking the risk. Substantive nods to Kafka and Carroll are well-placed, deftly realised, and intrinsic to the plot, and Noon devotees will be satisfied to encounter the reprise of such motifs as ladybirds, and indeed the indomitable Alice herself.
But it’s the presence of Teddy Fairclough that is all-important. …Shadows and …Library might attract criticism that they are too claustrophobic, too much locked in Nyquist’s head to embrace the reader’s presence. But the byplay between John and Teddy gives Within Without a broader canvas; a big silver screen over which the story can, and does, expand, and that is something to be welcomed and enjoyed.
Noon’s style remains intoxicating; his ideas are audacious and addictive, and the addition of a foil for Nyquist that is not his own thoughts – when friendship, if anything should be celebrated in SFF now more than ever – makes Within Without Noon’s most absorbing ‘joint’ to date.