I suspect I am not alone in having become a compulsive highlighter in my Kindle books. I try to curtail this because I'm a little creeped out by Amazon's eagerness to harvest data from my habit, but sometimes, sometimes the prose in a book is so good, so lyrical, so trippy, so marvelous that I can't help myself.
"My"* digital copy of Channel Sk1n, Jeff Noon's first novel in a good ten years, would pretty much just be 100% highlight, I realized pretty quickly. Which surprises me not at all. My copies of all of his other books are well-worn, dog-eared thumbed through, loved. Noon writes science fiction prose poetry of the highest order, not as long on narrative logic as some would like, but so lovely and stirring (if Pollen doesn't pretty much literally turn you on, see an endocrinologist) as to just swamp the need for narrative logic in dreamy deliciousness. I'm gushing, I'm oversharing, I'm overhyping, and I don't care.
This time, though... this time...
This time Noon is taking us somewhere else. Someplace with sharper edges, disjointed and sometimes terrible. We begin with even less narrative than we usually get from him, a series of jagged sentences and sentence fragments conveying fleeting impressions of popstar Nola Blue's disintegrating world, which is breaking apart just the way all of our lives are breaking apart, into slivers of attention, half-formed thoughts and hallucinations and maybe-facts that might just be delusions, but whose delusions are they? "The Bliss Machine lives on" some unknown interlocutor observes, but is it really producing any bliss?
But then the Jeff Noon to whom I am accustomed, to whom I am devoted, with whom I fell in love when first I encountered the worlds of Pollen and Vurt and of Automated Alice, takes over:
Imagine a sphere. Imagine a garden that grows on the surface of a sphere, the flowers moving freely, blossoming and dying, blossoming again in high-speed motion, their petals changing colour in a shifting array of patterns. Imagine now that each flower is seeded from within, from inside the Dome. Imagine these flowers changing one by one into insects, these insects changing en masse into swirls of mist, into doorways opening and closing, into a red sun setting over a housing estate, into stars.
Is that the text of a novel, or a hypnotist's patter? Is there a difference? How much does the experience of reading it change once you know it's actually the description of a TV show that captivates and absorbs our heroine into an attempt at Videodrome-style fusion with her screen, singing along with Robyn Hitchcock's scathing-soothing anthem "Television"?**
And what if that fusion has already taken place, and her new flesh is already transforming?
But where Cronenberg goes for seduction and body horror, and Hitchcock into passive, if weirdly rapturous, subjugation, Noon goes for a real fusion between the media and the self. Nola's skin slowly transforms into a screen; she begins picking up and displaying television signals. And when people watch, she feels complete; she feels the glow of giving and of loss of self in bisensual bliss.
It's goddamn freaky and utterly compelling and beautiful and terrifying all in one moment.
Paralleling Nola's story is that of Melissa Gold, the ultimate reallity TV star, living in deranged isolation beneath a vast dome and implanted with brain-scanning technology that turns her thoughts into imagery the dome displays to the world. One thinks of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World and how a camera meant to help blind people see turns into a dream-displaying addiction. This is that writ large.
The women's lives intersect historically via Nola's manager, who is Melissa's father, but where they meet is in the aether. First Melissa's "show" starts playing across Nola's body and then -- what?
More than any of his books yet, Channel Sk1n feels more like a book-length poem than a conventional novel, an updating of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland or perhaps Algernon Charles Swinburne's incantatory Dolores for the hyperconnected modern age. Like all good poetry, it leaves inviting gaps for the reader's mind to fit into and fill in.
And it tickles, this book, tickles the brain with stretches of what at first seem like ebook formatting errors (when read as an ebook) but even before the reader consciously realizes are deliberate start to feel like a signal, like programming; tickles the body with its sensuous descriptions of the images flickering across Nola Blue's skin.
Watch your abdomens, but know that we need nothing so crude and obvious as videotape slots nowadays.
*I am painfully aware that I am not really buying books when I grab them for my Kindle; I am, at most, leasing them.
**A snatch of the lyrics of which are slyly quoted in Channel Sk1n.