Monday, May 3, 2010

Falling Out of Cars


'Nothing can be trusted. That's the worst of it. Nothing can be saved, nothing retrieved. Nothing can be stated, nothing mapped out. Nothing can be fixed. Where then shall we go from here?'





A sickness that spreads between people but whose effects take place in the pathway between a transmitting device and its receiver. A slow, drawn out, worn out apocalypse in which the world ceases to produce meaning and grinds to a semiotic halt. A book that is only eight years old and already out of print.

I can’t get my head around the last part. Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars came out early in the life of my dissertation and I had it down as a paradigm-shifting novel, the kind of work that creates its own sub-genre. Yet I learnt some time later that it wasn't going to be published in the United States, while in its native Britain it died the slow death of the novel of ideas whose ideas don’t quite catch on. But how? It seemed so relevant to me, so precisely symptomatic of the anxieties that fester in the crevices of our marvellous technologies of communication and memory. That others failed to feel the same way felt like a foreboding, too: surely my dissertation was headed in the same direction, the path of the unread.

‘When the words disappear, where do they go?’

A contagion that spreads between people but affects symbols and ideas, language and machines. The game of chess can no longer be played - not because people have forgotten how, but because it has lost all sense of its rules. The very coastline of the country has started to fray, ‘like a cloth, unraveling.’ Everywhere in the space between symbols and understanding there is noise. Literal noise: a buzzing and a crackling and popping, and then a blurring and a mist that make the outline of letters and images harder and harder to make out. Computers and cars get sick and die. Clocks no longer tell the time. Telephones connect you to random conversations or are plagued by a permanent static. Mirrors are the most diseased of all, and have to be hidden or covered so that the sick won’t be driven mad looking at their own mutated reflection.

We're losing ourselves. We're losing all the traces, all the moments of the world, one by one.
I have to keep writing.

Jeff Noon’s web page was last updated in February of 2008. The latest entry in his personal diary reveals that as of April 2005 he was working on a screenplay for Falling Out of Cars. Provisional title: The Noise. I assume nothing came of it, which is a terrible shame. I try to imagine what the score would sound like. (There is somewhere out there a recording of Noon reading his penultimate novel to date, Needle in the Groove, with soundtrack by the great David Toop.) Then he was involved with other writers in a work of experimental Web fiction entitled 217 Babel St. Ongoing, perhaps, it’s hard to say. Cobralingus came and went. Perhaps his writing world unravelled too, or the remarkable thread that linked all of his novels has become all entangled: the sexualised transmission of information (nymphomation); computer viruses crossing over into the human bloodstream; mirrors and feathers that record dreams; Lewis Carroll, Borges, Edgar Allan Poe - maybe it all became a horrible tangled mess.

In the book, too, the writer/narrator is troubled: made sick by the disease that had already claimed her young daughter ('Angela died in a tank. A tank of water. Isolated. They say her own heartbeat killed her, the rhythms of it. A terrible music. She drowned. She drowned in herself.'), she tries to keep a faithful diary, a record, as if that was the key to start making sense of herself once again. But the diary, which is to say the novel, doesn’t hang together; it, too, is diseased, riddled with mistakes and erasures, incoherent, feverish.
[…] all the words crawling around the paper, merging together, separating, and all the time losing themselves before my eyes, my cold staring eyes. Even the pages I had been working on just a short while before, they too were cast in this strange manner, and lost. The story, lost. Only here and there amongst the pages would a few lines of text emerge clearly from the black, smoky mess of ink, words I could not recognize as my own. Some other person had taken over the writing of the book. And then I bent my head a little, and brought the book closer, towards my face. There it was, on the edge of silence, a gentle fizzing sound. The book was making a noise.

When I first read Falling Out of Cars, sensitised as I was to reflections on culture and writing technologies and how we keep our personal and collective histories safe, I found it a mine of arresting images and ideas that seemed to both validate and challenge my thinking. There is the top floor of the Museum of Fragile Things, lined with books whose words vanish as soon as they are read; there is the electronic spellchecker gone mad, frantically searching through every possible combination of letters for tiny fragments of meaning, but finding nothing more coherent than 'your pyramids shall'; and then of course there is the road, that everyplace of apocalyptic literature and film, except here it doesn’t connect places but rather meander - always seemingly somewhere outside of London - and the characters don’t find themselves but rather lose themselves in it, like in that forest in Through the Looking-Glass that makes you forget who you are.


John Hillcoat's The Road.


It is along this road that the effects of the virus are made visible not in the form of chaos and destruction but the cars abandoned by drivers who no longer trusted themselves, or the measures taken to keep information at bay.
Only the most important road signs could be seen, and these limited to half a dozen basic symbols. LEFT, RIGHT, GO, STOP, YES, NO. Very few of the stores had proper names to them. They were called things like BUTCHER, or else BAKER, or even PRODUCT. There was more than one shop called, quite simply, SHOP.

It’s at this point, 39 pages into the book, seven years or so after my first reading of it and newly sensitised to an altogether different set of issues, that it struck me: the sickness that Noon is describing is not a form of amnesia. It’s autism. The rote social gestures, the pieced together conversations - remembered, ‘not created there and then’ - the people avoiding each other’s stare; and above all the perception of that noise, the hypersensitivity, what Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher calls ‘a morbid acuteness of the senses’. Textbook symptoms, yet strictly metaphorical, pointing to the notion of autism as cultural condition, a collective adverse reaction to the hypermediation of every aspect of our working and social lives.

(I am not, to be very clear, suggesting that this cultural hypothesis should have a direct bearing on our understanding of clinical autism and its causes, remedies and possibilities; rather that the sometimes irritating, facile flurry of interest in the latter, its sudden and sustained mass cultural appeal, may be due in part to a growing if not altogether explicit awareness that autism invests aspects of the self that are laid bare and made more vulnerable by the manner in which we live.)

If the sickness of Falling Out of Cars is autism, then it is a bleak diagnosis, a harrowing account of its effects on the self and on the fabric of our affective lives. But there is also a hopefulness of sorts in the attempt to inhabit the condition, to give it a sympathetic poetic description: not just of the constant and paralysing assault on the senses, but also of the countermeasures, of the coping mechanisms, and even of the possibility to sense and understand the world in a radically different way. So in the end the little ray of light that peers out of the story is not Tupelo, the girl who is immune to the virus and whose genes may contain the key to a vaccine, but the children who are ‘learning to live with the noise’, finding new languages and gestures to make sense of their changed world and transform that noise into a legitimate and natural source of meaning. It is in that brief moment that Falling Out of Cars becomes counter-apocalyptic, speculating that humanity might develop a new native language in which to state a new set of relationships between technology, work, the environment and society. It is a daring leap of the imagination, and a far too relevant message to find in an out-of-print book.

***

Which leads me tiptoeing into an awed coda, in the form of what are quite possibly the most extraordinary and challenging eight minutes on the Web. Amanda Baggs, In My Language. You must watch this.




I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and feel – I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books, and fail to do them to the wrong things, or else people doubt that I am a thinking being. And since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much, they doubt that I’m a real person as well.




Jeff Noon. Falling Out of Cars. London: Doubleday, 2002. The page numbers for the quotations are available upon request. The final extract is from In My Language (and here the hat tip goes, I think, to Russell.)

23 comments:

Di said...

Thank you. I have so much to learn.

I started out reading this post and I thought, 'couldn't read that book, it would destroy my mind'. I tend to immerse myself in books.
And then you introduced me to way of being that I know absolutely nothing about, and perhaps your introduction was one of the very best introductions a person could receive.

Ben Wilson said...

Interesting Gio. You put succinctly a thought I've long held - for at least 20 years, since I first read Hubert Dreyfus "What computers can't do". He suggests that the kind of intelligence we might expect from computers following the development paradigms of the time (expert systems were coming into fashion then) was at best autistic. He believed that learning to follow complex sets of rules was merely a stepping stone on the way to mastery of deep knowledge, that people who got stuck there were doomed to mediocrity.

He had some other insights into the sources of this fixation we have in equating rule-following with intelligence, pointing harsh fingers at philosophers from the hyper logical traditions (my wording, can't remember how he put it).

Autism as a cultural condition is a highly suggestive idea. The fixation on rules and measurement finds its way into all of our institutions, schools, workplaces, etc. It devalues true expertise which moves beyond such rigidity, suggesting such an idea is irrational, mystical, prejudiced, etc. When I talk about science as a religion, I'm talking about this tendency. I really think true science is not the neat, rule following that so many scientists seem to believe it is.

My own experiences with developing AI systems, which I've related to you before, did a lot to confirm this to me. I think I told you how sick I got of basically being asked to dumb experts down so that we could program what they did, and then turn around and claim to have outperformed them. It felt profoundly wrong to me, however lucrative it was.

On Facebook you've hinted at writers block. Please don't let it get the better of you. You have very interesting ideas, very much worthy of being heard.

Giovanni said...

Oh, thank you both for the kind words. Actually, Ben, I think I might have mentioned this to you before but I wonder if you'd enjoy Davis' Techgnosis. In fact in Falling Out of Cars there are a few decidedly techgnostic strands, none more so than the central plotline which involves finding and piecing together shards of a mirror that may or may not be the one that Alice went through. I wonder as I write this whether the book might in fact have been hurt commercialy by its excess of ideas, which are not always conventionally developed. There is for instance an extraordinary page on the healing power of writing, but it brings the narrative nowhere closer to a resolution.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

OK, OK, you got me. Found a used copy, rushing it here, can't wait.

rob said...

Yeah, makes one want to grab a copy before the words fade away and the ideas disappear with them.
So, off to google...
Thanks!

Ben Wilson said...

I'll be checking out both books, ta Gio.

Keri H said...

A long time ago I wrote

"she was incredibly incurably sense-able
smelt apples before she tasted 'em" etc.

I was referring to myself: I have always had limited eyesight (it is better than it ever has been in my life, because a cataract operation) but exquisite hearing; excellent proprioception (it includes feeling when unseen anyone is close to me -I feel it from the middle of my spine-), and a rather extreme sense of smell & touch& taste.

That was an extraordinary video: the person started by keening, turned it into a drawnout meeeeee, was making old old old music by mouth and finger-created sound: signs, gestures, toning, "a constant conversation", what shamans, ancient musicians used to do...

most people like that cant live easily in cities...

Another brillant post - thank you Giovanni! (Now can I send the Agathe Thornton?)

We have intensely Payne's Grey clouds coming in from the North...an interesting sky-day

Jolisa said...

Thanks, Gio. The book sounds amazing. It reminds me of a recurring nightmare that always comes with an audio track of static and fuzzed visual edges -- and of how the everyday world feels when I misplace my glasses. I am at sea, and seasick, and I realise how much I depend on a hard-edged verbal and visual superstructure for the world around me.

I am reminded also of Janet Frame's The Carpathians. It's about a sort of linguistic apocalypse experienced by one small New Zealand street, as witnessed by an American visitor. From memory, it culminates in a spectacularly beautiful and mostly silent rain of ash - except that it's not ash, exactly, it's tiny grey flakes in the shapes of letters and punctuation symbols from all the alphabets in the world.

(I don't have a copy of the book to hand, alas; hopefully someone else can contribute the relevant sentences?)

That video by Amanda Baggs has haunted me since I first saw it, and has to be one of the most radical acts of translation I've ever witnessed. Her matter-of-fact inversion of our accustomed definitions of "the world," "interaction" and "communication" is amazing.

I find her utter borderlessness at once terrifying and thrilling. I think we were all, once, that porous and multilingual; watch any small child sing to running water, or become physically and mentally akin to a trusted animal, or experience food via their entire body... Growing up is about developing edges and borders and rules, and, tragically, being taught to forget the languages of the creatures and elements with whom we share the world.

I wonder, when we seek the state of "flow," or revel in (what Freud called) that "oceanic feeling" via a bath or sex or a fluidly competent physical action or even just a sudden visitation of un-pin-downable full-body sensation, is it perhaps that we are re-experiencing that long-lost fluency?

Jolisa said...

NB Of course, I don't mean to romanticise the alienating effects of being what you might call "oceanically fluent" in a monolingual world. Still, Baggs' inversion is such a powerful and empowering statement on behalf of so many who cannot speak to the question in words the rest of us understand. It might well function as a de facto human rights declaration for all non-linguistic fellow-travellers, from infants and animals on up, who stand suddenly revealed as more "able" than the rest of us in crucial if undervalued ways.

(Word verification: ingato, n., the deep and inscrutable inner reality of a cat)

Alan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

Sounds a bit like his earlier "Vurt", & "Pollen", set in Manchester after a widely used drug has already caused some kind of reality (or perception) breakdown amongst the population.

Freaky, and a world away from your average breezy, plot-driven SF.

(N.B. The earlier deletion was as a result of an unforgivable spelling mistake.)

Giovanni said...

@Alan Whilst promoting the book, Noon ventured to suggest that SF was dead. I'm sure that didn't help him, but he might have had a point.

(Your spelling mistake survives in my email notification of the deleted message - but I won't check it out I promise)

@Jolisa
NB Of course, I don't mean to romanticise the alienating effects of being what you might call "oceanically fluent" in a monolingual world. Still, Baggs' inversion is such a powerful and empowering statement on behalf of so many who cannot speak to the question in words the rest of us understand. It might well function as a de facto human rights declaration for all non-linguistic fellow-travellers, from infants and animals on up, who stand suddenly revealed as more "able" than the rest of us in crucial if undervalued ways.

One of the ways in which I've found the book useful in my latest encounter with it is that it asks the question: what if the monolanguage you and almost everybody else speaks became suddenly inadequate to describe your environment and respond to it? And it's a question that anybody who's around people with autism, or are deaf, etc. needs to ponder at least once. For those other languages aren’t broken, far from it, but we effectively make them appear
so, if not break them ourselves - for instance, by underfunding sign language schools or closing them down on the grounds that deaf people need to be able to speak to us in order to participate in society. (And here I nod in the direction of Oliver Sacks’ excellent book Seeing Voices.)

(Also, I shall get hold of The Carpathians post haste!)

Giovanni said...

@Keri

That was an extraordinary video: the person started by keening, turned it into a drawnout meeeeee, was making old old old music by mouth and finger-created sound: signs, gestures, toning, "a constant conversation", what shamans, ancient musicians used to do...

most people like that cant live easily in cities...


I often think about that, because of course autists are supposed to find work in the IT sector, aren't they? And there may be an actual compatibility there, I really don't want to prejudge that, but I also wonder if it's simply the best we can offer them without making any sort of actual concession or compromise, nor of course sacrifice the idea that in order to be a person you need to be economically productive.

On the subject of city vs. nature, there is a lovely line spoken by a bit character towards the end of the book

I looked around. There was nobody else in sight, not a soul, and only fields of wheat on either side.
Jackson held his arms out wide. 'Ah now. What a view that is. You come out here, there's no shit. Everything means just what it means, and nothing more.'


It reminded me of Wendell Berry's poem The Peace of Wild Things, which was used once in the TV show ER by a character suffering from Alzheimer's in a related and rather poignant fashion - but it will have to wait for a proper post.

Jolisa said...

I love that Wendell Berry poem. Immanence is the word that comes to mind.

Apropos or not, here is a line that leapt off the page of the book I was reading before I paused to read these comments. Emily Dickinson, writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "Nature is a Haunted House -- but Art -- A House that tries to be haunted."

Keri H said...

Quite a while ago (August 1996)my mother's elder brother died.
He was known to us, his whanau, as 'Uncle (pronounced 'unka') Bill.'
Unto the 3rd generation from him, we loved him dearly.
He never married: he never bred kids: he loved, in the best sense (since, if need be, wounded in pig-dog wars, he could shoot a loved companion) other animals. Birds, cats, dogs, us-and he would deeply, trustingly, help us whenever he could.
When he died, from emphysemia (he'd been a smoker since age 8 - because that did happen if you were born in 1917) & heart failure, there was - discussion - make that, raruraru, intense & continuing raruraru- over how his takiaue should be held.

Bill really liked the Walt Whitman poem (indeed, he had it on the wall of his crib) but I disliked it because it was bilogically untrue: I've got quite a few sibs, so I lost. What I really wanted was my variant (with full acknowledgements!) of the Wendell Berry poem...I first read *him* 30 years after I written my first "quiet & death & real peace" in - well, nature.

My sibs jibbed on "wood-drake.' Fair enough. And the kotuku hadnt really been acknowledged south,as a real visiting bird, in 1996...

Giovanni said...

Lovely... and I now I wish I could speak the rest of the Maori language just so I can use the word raruraru.

stephen said...

I saw that video for the first time just now. I very much agree with this:

"I think we were all, once, that porous and multilingual; watch any small child sing to running water, or become physically and mentally akin to a trusted animal, or experience food via their entire body... Growing up is about developing edges and borders and rules, and, tragically, being taught to forget the languages of the creatures and elements with whom we share the world."

because my overwhelming response at the first few minutes was a sense of loss and anger as I reflected on how many similar behaviours were firmly squished out of me as a child. Don't make that noise, stop doing that you'll break it, what are you looking at, stop wriggling, etc etc. And yet in my memory I was doing what Baggs is doing: engaging, interacting, experiencing things around me in an unmediated way. Very selfish of me to focus on that now, since that wasn't the point Baggs wanted to make at all.

Ben: I don't know if this is related to what you are trying to say or not, but what really put me off maths in the upper forms at school was the experience of not just having to show my working (the answers were obvious, damnit) but having to work the way the teacher taught, rather than using my own way which also worked. Solving problems in your head was positively discouraged. The biggest fun I ever had at school was *knowing* the answer, somehow, and then figuring out how I got there, a faculty which academia did its best to extinguish and whose atrophy I greatly regret now.

Keri H said...

Jolisa- that' porous and multilingual' open-ness that small children display is still the norm for a majority of kids - but not for an unfortunately large number o young'uns especially in 'highly developed' nations. I met a one-yearold last week who *never walked barefoot on sand*! And her astonishment and joy (after the distress bit) was lovely to behold. (She'd also never seen an egg laid, but that's an whole other story...) She was born to loving parents - in Singapore.

Stephen - I had a kind of innate understanding of math which was effectively killed in the 4th form at Aranui HS. Because I got the right answers - but didnt produce the 'correct working-out of each answer.'

By school.cert (5th form = yr. 11 (I think)) I'd given up, and wrote lewd rhyming limericks for 'correct working'. (Score = 29%.)

Giovanni said...

@Stephen
Very selfish of me to focus on that now, since that wasn't the point Baggs wanted to make at all.

With a belatedness that is going to make this comment very much pointless: I suspect that what you're saing is actually very consistent with the point of Baggs' video. If there is a continuum in our native languages and ways to relate with the world, and the autistic experience is closer to that of the child, then un-teaching those behaviours in young non-autists is a product of the same logic that tells autists that their experience is incorrect, wrong, 'a world of their own'.

harvestbird said...

She hasn't language, nor should she;
and yet we read to her
and tell her everything, more-or-less:
a continuous, uncensored stream.

Your father's camping up the text
again, my dear; leave that for a
few more years and I'll explain it.
Listen to your mother,

who has relied mostly on telepathy
(and imagined, so recently,
the measured venous uptake of the umbilicus
as a kind of radio signal):

she wonders if the walnuts
breaking underfoot, or the slight
skid of a rubber heel
on mulching leaves are felt

differently by you; if this
bumping and jiving and crying
and eight dogs barking
might be for you as night and day

while you make your hand-fluttering,
head-banging, solitary way
out and up and head over drumming
heels, in lieu, in unknown teleology of

that first and final journey into words.

Giovanni said...

Your best yet.

Doug K said...

"The Peace of Wild Things" reminds me of Leaves of Grass,

"I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth."

which is rather a condemnation of humanity than a celebration of peace: still it was the first time I'd read in words what I felt to be true, so it has stuck with me.

My father self-published a meditation titled "Computerspeak and Soulspeak" many years ago, including variations on the theme sounded by Hubert Dreyfus as noted by Ben, above. Perhaps I can put it online now.

harvestbird's fine poem brought Plath to mind, "You're" to an unborn child:
"Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on."

Giovanni said...

"Perhaps I can put it online now."

Do please let us know where if you do!

ShareThis