Rating: 7.4 (out of 10)
In A Man of Shadows, Jeff Noon created a metafictional world where his detective hero John Nyquist needed to transgress the boundary between the cities of Dayzone and Nocturna – one of perpetual day and one of eternal night – to catch a killer. In its sequel, The Body Library, Nyquist finds himself in Storyville, where a new mystery unfolds after he kills, in self-defense, the man he was hired to follow. Like its predecessor, the world of The Body Library eschews all the figuration we expect from symbolic representation in favor of direct implication. In Storyville, streets and buildings are all named after famous writers, people get killed by viruses made up of stories, and the government fastidiously manages each of the stories that make up its residents’ lives. To cross the threshold into Storyville is to accept that every action, every interaction, every choice, is valuated solely in terms of its place in a story. It is a world, ironically, made up almost entirely of references, rather than the metaphors and allusions we generally associate with literature and storytelling.
Nyquist has his own story to tell, and part of the allure of taking a case in Storyville is that it gives him the opportunity to work on his own memoir (not surprisingly titled A Man of Shadows, because Noon can’t seem to leave meta-enough alone) about his search for the elusive serial killer Quicksilver. Nyquist may be suppressing, or outright avoiding, aspects of that experience, which in turn is keeping him from completing his new narrative – finding out who is responsible for a novel manuscript called The Body Library that has inspired cult-like devotion in some of Storyville’s residents, and appears to have an unnerving control over the stories of those who encounter it.
Most commercial SFF series published today treat its subsequent volumes as tentpoles in a larger ongoing saga. By contrast, The Body Library is a traditional standalone sequel, the way Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels were sequels that required little or no knowledge of the other novel’s events to be comprehensible. That isn’t to say that reading A Man of Shadows first doesn’t inform your reading of its sequel; it does, much in the way that reading The Big Sleep is not crucial, but helpful, in reading the novels that follow it. References to A Man of Shadows are clearly explained where they are essential to the current story. In fact, for a pair of novels that flaunt their surreal settings like a peacock plumes its feathers, there is a surprising amount of clarity of intent in its pages.
While most novelists prefer to explore gray areas, Noon’s Nyquist novels take on the black-and-white of their id-centered world. “Normal” in this world is whatever fits an established pattern; “mystery” is what occurs when a pattern is not immediately apparent. This is more or less true of all fiction, but rarely is it rendered so explicitly. The Body Library, the unfinished, ever-evolving novel inside the novel, is a dangerous agent of disorder – expanding outside of the confines of its pages in a world that prefers to keep its metaphors and allusions tucked safely between the margins.
Noon is one of those authors whom I admire more than enjoy. The Body Library is as much of an intellectual/artistic enterprise as A Man of Shadows, and just as maddeningly opaque. Characters seem to pantomime their emotional lives more than feel them. Everyone is so hyper-aware of the formulas that dictate their narratives it is near impossible to connect with anyone on a basic human level. Even more egregious are the instances in which the novel fails/refuses to account for some of the ritualistic formulations within its metafictional framework. Through much of the novel Nyquist is driven by an injustice done to a “fallen” woman – a nod to one of the most overused conventions in both literary and genre fiction, but Noon offers the reader neither a personal investment in Nyquist’s obsession nor a probing commentary on the narcissistic moral outrage of the white male hero in western literature.
What we are left with, if not a novel that we can connect with on a base emotional level, is an ingeniously manufactured art object, directing the reader’s attention with a concatenation of smoky-eyed dreamlike imagery punctured by the Pavlovian responses of its actors – like a film noir mystery directed by Luis Buñuel and edited by Lev Kuleshov.
The Body Library can’t help but propel Nyquist toward the center of the labyrinth, his gaze retreating further inward with each turn of the page. The image of Odin bleeding from his self-inflicted wound, dangling face-down from the world tree (or in this case, the word tree) trying to penetrate the water’s depths for that final key to true wisdom, projects outward from the center of the maze. Like the one-eyed god, Nyquist has already given up a piece of himself in his quest for knowledge; masochism is the only avenue that remains in his dogged pursuit for more. A cynical solution to the mystery of self-knowledge, but a haunting one nonetheless.