Wednesday, June 09, 2010

High Noon

A writer likes to be remembered, recalled, I'm sure. Twice in the last week the name Jeff Noon has cropped up. "Where is he?" "I loved Vurt". "Where's the great contemporary Manchester novel? What about Jeff Noon?"

Back in the day, City Life (RIP) released two short story supplements (here and here) of the best writers in Manchester, with a couple of newcomers to add spice. I was one of the newcomers, but amongst the more established writers was Jeff Noon. In that post-acid house post-Trainspotting era he came up with some superior cyberpunk SF dystopias - "Vurt", "Pollen" and "Automated Alice" - that were bestsellers, but also had a bit of northern urban grit. His cyberspace was very centred on streets and districts of South Manchester, like some warped literary episode of "Cracker." Not since "North and South" had someone made Manchester such a strong character in a novel.

For personal reasons, I'm assuming, Noon went down to live in Brighton - which is probably as devastating a statement on Manchester as any: the city can't keep it's best sons (and daughters - two women I know are moving even now). Whilst contemporaries of his like Dave Haslam remain embedded in the Manchester scene, such as it is, Noon has disappeared from our consciousness. The "web" - which he was an early writerly conversant with - is almost silent on his latest works. After four well-received, best selling books, there was a sense of diminishing returns. Noon without Manchester didn't seem right, and the books disappeared as well - perhaps never quite as successful outside of Manchester as they were in. 2001's "Needle in the Groove" is the last I remember in the shops and an Amazon search shows his books mostly out of print - copies available online from anything from 1p to over £100. His work became increasingly experimental, and his audience presumably evaporated with it. A web-based collaboration, 217 Babel Street, is the only near contemporary work - giving a sense he's still writing.

"Trainspotting" and the books that came in its wake, including anthologies like "Disco Biscuits" were always more hyped than was applicable, but looking back I wonder if Noon, Blincoe et al (and remember that Manchester's Sarah Champion edited "Disco Biscuits") were as close as Manchester has ever got to creating a literature to match its impeccable music scene. "Vurt" was published by Manchester start up press "Ringpull" that aimed to be a commercial success, and for a while succeeded. If it was all a bit seat of the pants it was at least consistent with the city's ethos.

Where, a friend asked, is Jeff Noon now? I can't remember when he was last reading in the city. Like bands playing their classic album live, I get the feeling he'd be very welcome now, whatever he chose to read. Come back Jeff Noon, we miss you.

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