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.)