In 1993, I was starting high school. My first year with a centre-parting in my hair, my granny’s old fur coat, and an endless array of Teddy Smith jumpers that clashed with my red jeans and blue Kickers. I wanted to write an episode of Doctor Who, which might have been a lovely dream if not for the fact Doctor Who had been taken off-air years beforehand, leaving me with repeat on UK Gold. But there was something new coming my way, a change for everyone. Council Tax replaced Community Charge, Caledonian University was created in a merger, John Major announced his Back To Basics campaign, and Trainspotting was launched at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. Another book launched around the same time, a novel destined for a different sort of cult status, one with a quieter but no less impassioned fanbase, was Vurt by Jeff Noon. It was as British as rainy days in the summer, but with a unique voice that was punk, drama, storytelling, and classic literature. It was also the future.
I never read Vurt when it first came out. It was a time where I was trying to find myself in books, a journey we all go on during our formative years. School made me read books of literary merit, which of course felt like an ordeal. The worst thing someone can do to make people read is force their own tastes on them. Young readers should be able to find their own stories. At that stage, in First Year, all I wanted to read was the latest Doctor Who New Adventure, pure nineties like Britpop and Spira Bars. They were sufficiently challenging enough for a kid, because they weren’t written with my age ground in mind. These were gateway books that would eventually lead me to other authors. In the end, they led me to Jeff Noon, whose name kept popping up in interviews with some of the writers I admired. Jeff Noon this, Jeff Noon that. Well, I had to investigate for myself. It’s always best to try the first book.
Vurt is a modern reimagining of Orpheus In The Underworld if poor Orpheus fell into a fucked up 2000AD Future Shock rather than a rabbit hole. Set in another version of Manchester (which might as well have been a different planet to me, being someone who lived in Cumbernauld at the time), it tells the story of Scribble and his friends The Stash Gang. In this England, an alternate dream world can be accessed by sticking a coloured feather down your throat and tickling it. As an image, it really does take beating. Scribble spends the course of the book trying to find his sister/love Desdemona who vanished after a heavy session with a feather. In her place is a blob from the other realm (and a new member of The Stash Gang). In order to find his sister, Scribble needs to get his hands on a special feather that might put him close to the one he loves…
In the dystopic science fiction genre, everyone talks about Neuromancer and A Clockwork Orange, but I’ll always mention Vurt, Snow Crash, and Lucifer Rising first. They aren’t colour coded feathers, yet still took me away other places, let me forget how distant I felt from everyone at school. They were loud, happy, and confident while I watched from a distance, pretending their parties were fun, waving away necks of bottles, when all I wanted were my books, CDs, and my bedroom with the door shut. Vurt is one of the few books I own that gets re-read every year without fail. I time my reading with the weather. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow in the winter, of course. The Beach in the summer. And for Vurt, I have to make sure it’s Autumn, because it feels like a book meant to be read while rain hits your window. Vurt made me read everything with Jeff Noon’s name on it. The Nyquist novels, in particular, are wonderful, each one containing a gorgeously rendered world with a detective at the heart of each case. In my opinion, Jeff turns out the sort of lines that William Burroughs would pawn his stash to write. He’s that good. Experimental with respect to his story, even his oddest work has something to enjoy in it. Like all of my favourites, Jeff Noon isn’t nearly as massive as I feel he deserves to be. Thankfully, his audience keeps him in business, and over the last few years he managed to get his work out via two publishers, one science fiction, the other crime.
Years later, when I find myself looking for original styles in brand new books, part of the test is whether or not they’re anywhere near as intersting as Vurt. That’s the highest praise, but deserved nonetheless. A few years ago, I was asked by North Lanarkshire Council Libraries to select a book that I felt was one of the best produced in The UK. After a short deliberation, I chose Vurt. Honestly, I’ll probably always choose Vurt. It’s a novel of quality, imagination, and it came when I needed something very different, for which I’ll always be grateful.