Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)
A former professor of mine was fond of saying that great art is not merely engaged with, but surrendered to. That particular quality of experience – the willing submission of the viewer to the mastery of the art object itself – is hard to nail down in words; so then, is the absence of that quality. This, in a nutshell, is the ambition of the critic – to find the words to relate that experience, or lack thereof (or the gray in between) to other potential consumers of said object.
Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows is undeniably a work of art, and an engaging one. Expressionistic in style, though post-modern in flavor, it often feels more like a painting than a novel: confined to its subjective space but bleeding out from its boundaries and edges, willing you to look for more than it can display. Like all art objects it asks for your surrender; like many it falls just short of obtaining it.
Though Noon is not usually associated with the movement known as the New Weird, A Man of Shadows, with its hybridized genres and skewed realities, fits the mold. The novel is set in some (future? Sideways?) version of our world, where the city of Dayzone exists in the perpetual light of an artificial neon sky, and the nearby city of Nocturna is shrouded in permanent darkness. Because the natural criteria for measuring time (the earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun) has essentially been banished from the two cities, everyone basically lives in their own personal timeline. In between the two cities is the shadowy (and gradually expanding) land known as Dusk, where strange people with terrifying abilities reside.
The story follows private detective John Nyquist, hired to find a young runaway heiress named Eleanor Bale. Eleanor’s case appears to be connected to a serial killer known as Quicksilver, who can somehow commit his murders in plain view of spectators without being seen. Nyquist becomes obsessed with protecting (or possibly killing) Eleanor, and with unmasking the enigmatic, and probably Dusk-born, Quicksilver. In the canon of fictional detectives, Nyquist is more Hammer than Holmes (or, more persistent than clever), and as a mystery it is one of those novels that plays coy with its biggest secrets until the villain is unmasked and willingly spills the beans.
Nearly every aspect of the book is immersed in Nyquist’s emotional reality. It is even suggested at one point that Dusk itself is “conjured from his own inner landscape.” I found it curious that, despite the highly subjective emotional expressionism shrouding Nyquist, I never really connected with him on a personal level. His motivations spring from a murky web of unconscious drives and pseudo-Freudian anxieties rather than anything tangibly associated with the quest he is set on.
If the world of the novel really is just an exegesis of Nyquist’s own mind, this would be the most intellectually honest rabbit hole for the author to tumble down, and as a result the book is way more head than heart. So, while it may have gotten into my skull, it never got under my skin. A Man of Shadows is still an art piece worthy of admiration, if not exhalation.