Friday, September 03, 2010

Re-Review: Noir, by K.W. Jeter

The subject of K.W. Jeter came up on Facebook, and I remembered that I had reviewed his novel Noir when it came out years ago. Brilliant book, a masterwork, it didn't get the attention it deserved. Too late to make him any money now, but if you can find a used copy, snap it up. Very much worth the ride.

Here's the review I did for the local paper:

"Night Moves"

Readers who complain that all science fiction is plot-driven and stylistically bland must not have read books by Portland author K.W. Jeter. In his latest novel, Noir, Bantam Books, $23.95, Jeter takes us to a bleak-but-fascinating techno-future that makes the mean streets of Blade Runner seem like a visit to a Methodist Sunday school. (Based on a story by the late Phillip K. Dick, Blade Runner is a work with which Jeter is most familiar, since he wrote the best-selling sequel to the cult movie, and also knew Dick personally.)

The protagonist of Noir is McNihil, a former agent known as an asp-head, whose job it was to hunt down and kill copyright violators—a job that will surely draw smiles from professional writers and musicians. After the mysterious and violent death of a corporate executive named Travelt, McNihil is approached by the murdered man's boss, Harrisch, to find those responsible. Harrisch is a character whose oily ways fairly exude lies, and McNihil trusts the man about as far as he can fly by flapping his arms. He wants no part of the investigation, but naturally, he is boxed into doing the job.

In Jeter's Noir, sex and lethal violence make frequent appearances, often together, but being dead is not always the same as being inanimate. While Travelt is history, many of those who have stopped breathing are still walking around, courtesy of micromachines and sophisticated technology. This is done so they can continue to work off their debts, and until paid up, they exist in a kind of limbo, not alive, but not terminal as we think of it. McNihil's wife is thus dead, and he feels a great guilt about this, because when he had the money to pay her debts so she could be released, he used the funds instead on biological augmentations for himself, including a kind of neurovisial screen that overlays everything he sees: McNihil's view of the world is just like that of a 1940's film noir movie, black and white, high contrast—and always night.

Listen to a brief section of McNihil's train ride on a visit to his dead wife:

"Rattling on the poorly maintained tracks, the train made slow progress across the blighted landscape. Slow and southward, leaving the ill-defined outskirts of True Los Angeles behind. There had been a time—McNihil had seen the photos, watched the videos—when L.A. had merged seamlessly with the densely suburbanized zones below it, like a corpse on the slab of God the Mad Doctor, a somewhat living thing stitched together by arteriosclerotic freeways. All flowers die eventually, though, even the ones that are already toxic, and the black blooms wither and curl up on their black stems."

Jeter does not lack for creativity. Prostitutes are called cube bunnies; any aircraft that dares venture too high is shot down by orbiting semi-sentient constructs called Noh-flies, for reasons that seem senseless; rich people can send artificial copies of themselves, called "prowlers," into sections of the city where they dare not go "in the pink," to return with memories transferable by a kiss. With enough money, miracles of technology are available; without money, a staggering debt load might keep you among the walking dead for centuries.

McNihil eventually winds his way deeper into the plot, and at every turn, another lie comes to light, generally accompanied by violence. Nothing in the story is quite what it seems, and the trip to uncover a killer becomes a trip to the depths of McNihil's own soul.

Jeter's future is not a pretty place, nor is it for the faint of heart; this novel's prose is razor-edged and often bloody, dripping with sex, spackled with grit, and laced together with the pure starkness of film noir. The writing is so evocative in places as to shade right into sensory overload. If you are one of those readers who think that "style" is restricted to mainstream writers, come and spend a few hours in Jeter's imagination; you will be surprised at how well a science fictional portrait, however dark, can be painted.

No comments: