#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
Fractal Narrative, Paraspace, and Strange Loops: The Paradox of Escape in Jeff Noon’s Vurt
Jeff Noon’s entrance into the literary world was through the theater; his play, Woundings (1986), won the Mobil Prize. Upon the success of Woundings, Noon decided to “concentrate purely on playwriting, working mainly on [Manchester’s] local fringe theatre scene” (“Press Biography”). After taking a job at a Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester to support himself, Noon was urged by Steve Powell, an ex-colleague who had recently set up an independent publishing company, Ringpull Press, to write a novel. Thus began Noon’s professional writing career. In 1994, Noon was awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his boldly original debut novel, Vurt (1993). In the subsequent year, he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Since Vurt, Noon has published five novels (Pollen , Automated Alice , Nymphomation , Needle in the Groove , and Falling Out of Cars ); one collection of short stories, Pixel Juice (1998); a collection of avant-garde poetry, Cobralingus (2001); a hypertext novel/writing game in partnership with Steve Beard, Mappalujo (2002); and a hypertext novel/labyrinth, 217 Babel Street (2008), with Susanna Jones, Alison MacLeod, and William Shaw (available online).
Noon’s fiction is marked by virtuosic wordplay, Borgesian themes, Carrollian whimsy, and the ability to handle chaos with profound elegance. Manchester features prominently in the majority of Noon’s fiction—his most recent novel, Falling out of Cars, is unique as it is Noon’s only novel that does not take Manchester as its setting. The process and philosophy of electronic music—particularly the process of the remix—also play a central role in Noon’s aesthetic and creative approach to writing. Most notable, however, is Noon’s ability to take a central abstraction and, through spiraling repetition and rigorous aesthetic and linguistic creativity, develop “something akin to a private vocabulary ... a chamber of echoes where everyday words embrace new layers of meaning and association” (Santala, “Jeff Noon”). Yet despite the increasingly experimental, nuanced, and elegant developmental path Noon’s writing has taken, his literary output largely remains critically neglected both within and outside the sf community.
To speak of a unified system of knowledge as the guiding principle of Noon’s explicitly postmodern “liquid fiction” would be misleading. Marked by radical fragmentation of form and narrative strategies that decompose reality, Noon’s fiction demands a readership “adept at riding the multiple layers of information” of a “fluid society” (Noon, “Post Futurism”). Noon rejects much of the sense of apocalypticism often associated with sf texts depicting the postmodern condition: “I’m a real optimist, I really am, I’m one of the last,” Noon asserts in an interview with Michael Silverblatt. He claims that his optimism stems from advancements in twentieth-century science and their applications to art:
What’s happening in the twentieth century is that scientists have taken over the realms of the imagination.... And you see that again and again with chaos theory, complexity theory, relativity.... The universe became strange and was proven to be strange.... It’s almost ... as though poetry had entered the universe ... and I think the artists and writers have been lagging behind. (Silverblatt)
For Noon, the science legitimates his admiration of the experimental spirit; however, he is not interested in the direct links between science and literature; rather, he celebrates the conclusions of quantum mechanics and chaos theory—or chaotics, a term “used to talk about the implications of chaos theory in the broad cultural context” (Slethaug xii)—that the universe is strange and mysterious.
Often, Vurt is described as a cyberpunk novel, though Andrew M. Butler is more accurate in describing it as “cyberpunk-flavored” in the way that “some food tastes, looks and feels like chocolate, but it is not in fact chocolate” (“Journeys” 66). Butler also notes that in Vurt “there is less of a sense that [Noon] is writing consciously within a cyberpunk tradition” (66)—perhaps because of an almost complete disregard of “cyber” in the novel. Tony Keen claims that the cyberpunk elements of the novel function primarily as “surface gloss” (101). What is clear, however, is that—although Vurt tenuously belongs to the tradition of cyberpunk narrative and the labyrinthine quest tale in the tradition of Borges—it is stylistically and aesthetically not a formula piece. Part of the difficulty of categorizing Vurt may be the novel’s sharing of strategies and techniques associated with both cyberpunk and cutting-edge postmodern fiction, a condition Brian McHale in Constructing Postmodernism identifies as aesthetic contemporaneity. McHale suggests that “it is a consequence of [an] ever-tightening feedback loop between SF ‘genre’ fiction and state-of-the-art mainstream fiction that the poetics of mainstream postmodernism and the poetics of the latest wave of SF have come to overlap to such an unprecedented degree” (235). McHale’s analysis accounts for both the anxieties over the legitimation of postmodern science fiction by literary institutions and the complex loops of influence and systemic relations between contemporary sf and postmodernist mainstream fiction. Cyberpunk literature can “be seen, in this systemic perspective, as SF which derives certain of its elements from postmodernist mainstream fiction which itself has, in its turn, already been ‘science-fictionalized’ to some greater or lesser degree” (229).
This feedback loop of influence may account for some of the ambivalence about situating a postmodern novel such as Vurt among sf texts of the early 1990s—notwithstanding Noon’s own hesitant attitude towards the genre. Nevertheless, a novel like Vurt may be understood as part of the same feedback loop that constitutes the complex relationship between postmodernist mainstream fiction and New Wave and cyberpunk writing, though with a unique intensity experienced by a new generation of novelists. Veronica Hollinger rightly observes that the phenomenon upon which McHale comments is parallel to Bruce Sterling’s formulation of slipstream fiction, although this term “wasn’t yet available to McHale” (258). For Sterling, slipstream fiction “is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so.” Emphasizing an affective quality as central to slipstream fiction, Sterling announces that “this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Indeed, Vurt on the level of content, structure, and style effectively meets these criteria. Yet the novel’s complex relationship between contemporary sf and contemporary postmodernist mainstream fiction is further complicated by Noon’s sophisticated engagement with the cultural environment and its response to recent works of popular science. Indeed, part of Noon’s originality in the early 1990s was his desire to turn to the science and metaphors of chaos theory in general, and fractal geometry in particular, for aesthetic guidance in Vurt.
The ubiquity of chaos theory as a guiding aesthetic principle in Vurt allowed for the introduction of new conceptual structures—namely the fractal—that govern a unique approach to virtual reality narrative. With the publication of James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), the history and main concepts of chaos theory were lucidly presented to the general reading public for the first time in a single popular volume. Chaos theory was developed in the scientific community to examine, as Gleick remarks, “the irregular side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side” (3). The theory attempts to locate inherent order in seemingly random data; these ideas soon permeated the humanities, largely thanks to the groundbreaking critical work of N. Katherine Hayles. Despite Noon’s interest in chaos theory, sf critics have yet to examine his fiction from the perspective of the enrichment that popular science publications concerning the “new science” had on the cultural environment of the early 1990s—particularly in terms of aesthetic metaphors informed by the paradoxical fusion of the elegant and the erratic. Hayles argues in Chaos Bound that “information theory and poststructuralism concur in assigning a positive value to chaos. But where scientists see chaos as the source of order, poststructuralists appropriate it to subvert order” (176). The scientific and literary applications of chaos theory share many suppositions and methodologies, suggests Hayles, a circumstance “that can hardly be explained without the assumption that both are part of a common episteme” (176). She remarks that “deconstruction shares with chaos theory the desire to breach the boundaries of classical systems by opening them to a new kind of analysis in which information is created rather than conserved” (176). Noon, though he admits he is not concerned with scientific accuracy, is attracted to the suggestive quality of chaotics—that is, the order inherent in disorder. In Noon’s engagement with chaotics, chaos and order are inextricably linked together in a complex and dynamic dialectic. In other words, Noon envisions the chaotic universe not as an opportunity to rupture arbitrary structures but, as Hayles puts it, as a “complex configuration within which order is implicitly encoded” (25). Noon’s novel is marked by the author’s adherence to representational strategies—those of slipstream fiction—more appropriate than realism to a chaotic universe.
Both the narrative structure and the subject matter of Vurt display recursive patterns of self-reference and self-similarity. Vurt, like most of Noon’s late non-sf fiction, is marked by the author’s adherence, not to traditional literary conventions of realistic representation but to representational strategies more appropriate to a chaotic and irregular universe. McHale argues that, despite the remarkably unrealistic, even anti-realistic, quality of much of the content of postmodern writing, it nevertheless “turns out to be mimetic after all ... at the level of form” (Postmodernist Fiction 38). Vurt’s structural shifts towards unpredictability through narrative self-similarity and the protagonist’s syntactic feedback loops leading to his eventual apotheosis are formally mimetic in their dependency on a reality projected by chaos theory. In the structure, subject-matter, and choice of metaphors in Vurt, the influence of chaotics is evident.
The title of the novel refers to a virtual realm that individuals can enter by placing hallucinogenic Vurt feathers into their mouths.1 In describing the experience of being inside the Vurt realm, Noon synthesizes narrative techniques suitable to describe the experience of drug-induced hallucinations, playing video games, watching body horror films, and reading nature poetry. The novel alternates between the first-person narration of Scribble, the protagonist, and the “hints, tips, and evasions of Game Cat” (65), as Butler notes (Cyberpunk 65). 2 The premise of the story itself is rather simple. A group of Vurt feather addicts—Beetle, Scribble, Mandy, Bridget—are in search of ever-increasingly potent feathers as a means of escaping both from themselves and the dystopian Manchester—presumably in the near future—where the novel takes place. Scribble, the narrator and protagonist, is also on a quest to rescue his sister/lover, Desdemona, from a Vurt realm that can be accessed through a feather called “Curious Yellow.”3 Desdemona, while in a Vurt called “English Voodoo,” entered another Vurt realm, a meta-Vurt. In “Curious Yellow,” Desdemona is pulled under the earth of a garden and disappears. When Scribble returns from the Vurt without his sister, he notices the Thing-from-Outer-Space, a Vurt Being who functions as a substitute for Desdemona via a rule of exchange, Hobart’s rule.4 When Scribble ultimately finds his sister/lover in a Vurt realm, he exchanges himself for her—that is, she can return to the real world while he must stay in the Vurt. In this way, the novel is, as Keen (101) and Butler (“Journeys” 71) both note, a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.5
The use of the feather as the central metaphor for escape and access to virtual realities is striking for both its contrasting delicacy amidst Noon’s violently chaotic Manchester and its polysemous mobility. The feather metaphor is part of a profound linguistic game at work in the novel, evident when one considers the word’s Old French cognate, “plume.” The feather/plume metaphor consequently takes on three points of significance that inform the story. The first metaphorical meaning points directly to a central image of chaos, a plume of smoke. Gleick describes this chaotic image: “A plume of smoke rises smoothly from an ashtray, accelerating until it passes a critical velocity and splinters into wild eddies” (122). This connection between the feather and a plume of smoke is visually signified in the cover art of the 2001 Pan Macmillan edition, which displays a feather fissoning into wild eddies according to the nature of a plume of smoke. The second two metaphorical meanings are closely linked, invoking the plume as a writing implement and as a verb, to plume, which refers to a feeling of ease or satisfaction with oneself. In this sense, accessing virtual reality as a means towards escape or consolation is equated with the act of writing, an equation that lends an elegiac tone to the novel.
Another striking aspect of the narrative is that it is framed by two actions. A sentence, “A young boy puts a feather into his mouth” (1), precedes the first chapter, while the last chapter ends with “a young boy takes a feather out of his mouth” (327). As Butler notes, this framing device suggests that the whole narrative may be the Vurt hallucination of an unnamed young boy (“Journeys” 76). In part, the novel’s remove from ordinary reality lends itself to a narrative structure that moves between Vurts, meta-Vurts, meta-meta-Vurts, and so on ad infinitum. In other words, the narrative of Vurt occurs entirely within a virtual space that shifts into more remote virtual spaces. Consequently, the relation between ontological realities and narrative structure in Vurt is not transparent and must be conceptualized carefully. Additionally, Vurt demands an epistemic shift in thinking about these questions.
Chaos theorists developed fractal geometry as a supplement to Euclidean geometry in order to examine irregular and complex structures in nature. Fractals are shapes or structures that display detail at any degree of magnification. The term fractal, coined by mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975, is derived from the Latin adjective fractus, “from the verb fragere, to break” (Gleick 98). Mandelbrot found two English cognates, fracture and fraction, that communicated the proper connotations. An interesting feature of fractal structures is that they may be conceptualized as a feedback where the length of the loop curve is infinite while the structure itself only occupies a finite amount of space. Gleick cites one of the most simplistic fractal structures, the Koch curve, to illustrate this paradox: “begin with a triangle with sides of length 1. At the middle of each side, add a new triangle one-third the size; and so on. The length of the boundary is 3 X 4/3 X 4/3 X 4/3 ... —infinity. Yet the area remains less than the area of a circle drawn around the original triangle. Thus an infinitely long line surrounds a finite area” (99). The second notable feature of a fractal shape is the quality of self-similarity. Gleick explains self-similarity as
symmetry across scale. It implies recursion, pattern inside pattern.... Monstrous shapes like the Koch curve display self-similarity because they look exactly the same even under high magnification. The self-similarity is built into the technique of constructing the curves—the same transformation is repeated at smaller and smaller scales. Self-similarity is an easily recognizable quality. Its images are everywhere in the culture: in the infinitely deep reflection of a person standing between two mirrors, or in the cartoon notion of a fish eating a smaller fish eating a smaller fish eating a smaller fish. (103)
From a literary standpoint, fractals are of particular value as metaphors for postmodern structures. Hayles argues that postmodern spaces and structures are those that cannot be described using traditional Cartesian models.6 Not only is fractal geometry, Hayles suggests, “emerging as an important area of research because it is one way of conceptualizing and understanding postmodern space,” but it is also “a source of this space” (289). Likewise, the fractal quality of self-similarity on all scales of iteration is of interest for examining narrative structures that shift in and out of various ontological levels, particularly in the narrative of Vurt that occurs entirely within virtual postmodern space.7 The postmodern space expressed in Vurt estranges reality both through surreal events and unpredictable structure, and fractal geometry is the inspiration for some of these destabilizations.
Hayles suggests that Jean-François Lyotard’s theory of paralogy in The Postmodern Condition (1984) may suggest a way to critically examine virtual space.8 An experimental and somewhat paradoxical melange of “fractal geometry, quantum mechanics, catastrophe theory, and Gödel’s theorem” (Hayles 215), paralogy is an inventive hermeneutics that privileges local over global knowledge and promotes a shift from universal grand narratives to localized small narratives. A paralogical argument is in a continual state of change—final consensus is impossible, though agreement may occur provisionally—and legitimation of ideas is subject to perpetual debate. Lyotard proposes in The Postmodern Condition that
we no longer have recourse to the grand narratives—we can resort neither to the dialectic of Spirit nor even to the emancipation of humanity as a validation for [postmodernism].... [T]he little narrative remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention.... [T]he principle of consensus as a criterion of validation seems to be inadequate. (60)
Hayles argues, however, that paralogy fails to acknowledge that the scientific disciplines appropriated by Lyotard gesture towards the universal, rather than towards the local and provisional; that is, the scientific theories, in contradistinction to the philosophical concepts they inform, tend to be fervently committed to universality (215). There remains, however, some validity in the paralogical emphasis on scale and in the shift from global systems to locality. Consequently, the relation between scientific concepts such as fractal geometry and its popular-culture manifestation as the postmodern space expressed in Vurt establishes the fundamental matrix through which one may approach the novel’s structure and subject matter. Paralogy’s appropriation of fractal geometry becomes, in this sense, of particular interest in the examination of the setting of Vurt as a postmodern, or paralogical, space.
On a more literary level, Butler’s discussion of virtual realms in “Journeys Beyond Being” focuses on Samuel R. Delany’s concept of “paraspace.” This concept usefully links Lyotardian paralogy more explicitly to the literature of virtual reality. Delany uses the term in a 1987 interview with Takayuki Tatsumi as a means of talking about many of the complexities and paradoxes of cyberspace in novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Like the local, provisional emphasis of paralogical narratives that “speak after” (not about) other narratives, Delany argues that paraspaces “are not in a hierarchical relation—at least not in a simple and easy hierarchical relation—to the narratives’ ‘real,’ or ordinary, space” (168). Furthermore, concerning the rhetorical shift that occurs in postmodern space, Delany suggests that
this alternative space is a place where we actually endure, observe, learn, and change—and sometimes die. With these paraspaces the plot is shaped, as it were, to them. And inside them, the language itself undergoes changes—the language the writer uses to describe what happens in it is always shifted, is always rotated, is always aspiring toward the lyric. (168)
This metamorphosis in both language and character that represents the shift towards paraspace occurs frequently in Vurt.
The paraspatial narrative places an emphasis on observation, knowledge, and change and is precisely in accord with what Noon wishes to accomplish in his novel. In a transcription of a live correspondence between Noon and some fans on the Guardian Unlimited website, Noon explains the function of drugs such as the Vurt feathers in his fiction: “I use drugs as a metaphor for change, a way of forcing my characters into a new way of being” (“Transcript”). Further, Noon writes that
My interest in playing with words as a medium in their own right, for instance, is nothing to do with the influence of drugs, as it was for Burroughs, but entirely to do with my love of dub reggae and the mysteries of the remix. I’ve arrived at a similar place by an entirely different route. Most of the time, I don’t even know I’m walking a particular route until I’m well down the way. There’s no theory involved. (Santala, “Transmission > Reception”)
In other words, Noon’s metaphorical drugs facilitate the rhetorical shift toward paraspace, a narrative technique remarkably similar to that employed by Philip K. Dick, although decidedly less mystical. Butler rightly separates Dick’s amphetamine usage—and the author’s false reputation as an acid guru—from the frequent appearance of drugs in his fiction. He writes:
Drug usage in [Dick’s] ... novels is largely a plot device permitting him to shift between levels of reality—for example, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), where hallucinations become real by ingesting the chemical Chew-Z—or to fill in a relevant background—as in Martian Time-Slip (1964), where bored housewives need medication in order to get out of bed in the morning. (“LSD” 266)
Building on critical analyses of the characteristic tripartite structure of Dick’s ontologies, Butler remarks that “it becomes impossible to figure out what we are meant to take as authentic or as hallucination (thus undermining the very notion of an originary realm)” (269; emphasis in original). Noon’s frame tale of the young boy and his metaphor of fractal geometry permit a similar structure of multiple levels, though one that playfully complexifies the spatial form of Dick’s tripartite organization—which Butler argues is “seductive but misleading” (276)—allowing Noon a narrative mapping that produces a stranger, more improvisatory feel. While Dick’s spatial conception of multiple ontological layers is informed by neo-Platonism and Gnosticism and the conviction that, as Butler suggests, “spatial metaphors will always let us down” (276), fractal geometry suggests a paraspatial world that is formulated on, as Scott Bukatman says of the Mandelbrot set, “an object that is not an object, a bounded form which contains the infinite” (114).
Since the entire narrative of Vurt is arguably estranged from “ordinary” reality, the reader may be more apt to think differently about the novel’s conception of space. That is, Noon’s framing device suggests that even the apparently non-hallucinatory scenes in Vurt may be the hallucinations of the otherwise unnamed “young boy” and consequently occur only in simulations of ordinary space. This may account for the ubiquity of lyrical passages in the novel. The space in which the entire narrative of Vurt takes place is analogous to the estrangement the reader experiences as a character in the novel undergoes the hallucinations from a feather. In this sense, all Vurt feather hallucination scenes in the novel take place in a meta-Vurt, while the evidently “meta-Vurt” scenes induced by the “Curious Yellow” feather (80) take place in what is actually a “meta-meta-Vurt.” The spatial structure of Vurt may be systematized as follows. First, there is the real, non-fictional space in which the reader and the physical book exist. The fictional space of the young boy—i.e., Vurt’s narrative—constitutes the primary virtual space. The secondary virtual spaces correspond to the hallucinations experienced by various characters in the Vurt narrative. The tertiary virtual spaces are those in which feathers are consumed by characters already in a secondary virtual space. This structural succession continues ad infinitum. Ultimately, Delany’s conception of paraspace figures in Vurt as both a rhetorical manifestation of Lyotard’s concept of paralogy and as an index to the metamorphoses of language that signal transitions between spatial levels.
In the first Vurt feather hallucination scene in the novel, for example, Scribble, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget, and the Thing-from-Outer-Space are occupying what they believe to be an apartment building in ordinary, originary space. The Stash Riders have returned to their apartment, which is characterized by typically unremarkable objects such as “a settee,” a “window,” a “Turkish rug” (26), etc. When Beetle force feeds Scribble a “Skull Shit” feather (27), however, the half-willing victim notes: “I could feel it there, tickling, making me want to gag. And then the Vurt kicked in. And then I was gone. I felt the advurts roll, and then the credits” (29). At this moment, the reader’s conception of space in this episode is radically altered, though the characters themselves never physically move through space. The following is Scribble’s description of the transformation of the nondescript apartment:
Screaming down tunnels of brain flesh, putting thoughts together, building words and cries, cries of the heart. Electric impulses, leading me on, the room wallpapered in reds and pinks, blood all flowing down from the ceiling. Brid hiding behind the settee. The Beetle taking Mandy from behind the Turkish rug. A Thing-from-Outer-Space floating in the air, gently landing on the dining table. Me walking through a swamp of flesh towards the kitchen door, in search of breakfast cereal. Stepping over Beetle and Mandy, finding the kitchen door locked and barred, looking just like a wall of beef. Blood pulsing from the keyhole. (29)
What is notable about this first description of a Vurt hallucination is that Scribble carefully attributes a hallucinatory reality to the typical objects in the apartment. The reader is almost certain that the narrative has not moved into another physical locale, yet at the same time remains confident that the space the narrative continues to inhabit has been altered, shifted, or reapplied in some way. Rather, the narrative has been relocated in the sense that it has moved from one fractal iteration to another. While the characteristics of the preceding iteration—such as the objects in the room—remain present, they are altered by a successive recursion of descriptive ornamentation. The metamorphosed narrative may be supposed to be occurring in a paraspace; location has been transformed while objects, orientation, and characters retain self-similarity.
Paraspace in Vurt demands a different way of approaching the conceptualization of fictional setting. It would be fundamentally misleading to imagine the paraspace of Vurt mapped according to Cartesian grid principles and characterized by well-ordered and predictably structured patterns. Hayles and Gleick use the analogy of movement through an urban space with the help of maps and Cartesian grids that display predictable and regularly spaced streets (Hayles 288-89; Gleick 97). While the cityscape can be coded as Cartesian grids, the grids in turn legitimate the cityscape, suggesting a feedback loop of epistemic validation. Epistemically, Cartesian grids serve a similar function as fractal geometry: the two serve as tools for conceptualizing space and ultimately become a source for creating fictional versions of space. This feedback loop of legitimation no longer functions appropriately, however, when confronted with complex systems such as natural processes or, on the other hand, postmodern spaces such as virtual reality (Hayles 289). Scribble notes that what we all want is “a squaring of the tides” (Noon, Vurt 201), recognizing the incompatibility between his desire for simple Euclidian order and the tidal imagery of the flux between chaos and order that characterizes the world in which he exists. Ultimately, attempting to understand the postmodern space such as that exemplified by Vurt through ordered and sequentially predictable Cartesian grids will be hermeneutically vain.
The metamorphosis of objects in the apartment consequently provides the first example of how paraspace functions in the narrative of Vurt. The settee, the Turkish rug, and the kitchen door do not, for example, become clocks or clouds. Rather they remain, in some objective sense, the same objects, therefore confirming the self-similarity of the room before, during, and after the characters engage in taking the “Skull Shit” feather. The reader is certainly aware that the room and its objects are structurally similar to how they were before the narrative shifts to represent a Vurt hallucination. Likewise, the characters are not radically different, but rather are subject to a narrative recursion and subsequent transformation. The technique that Noon employs in order to effectively represent paraspace in Vurt is akin to the way the process of recursive iteration functions in the examination of the infinite self-similar complexity of fractal structures.
Mathematical iteration is rather simple. Leonard Smith describes it in Chaos: A Very Short Introduction thus: “you put a number in and you get a new number out, which you put back in, to get yet newer number out, which you put back in. And so on” (33). In other words, the process involves the repetitive application of a specified algorithm or formula. For fractal geometry, recursive iteration allows scientists to both produce and examine the infinitely complex and self-similar structures that fractals represent. Perhaps a simpler way of understanding the process involves imagining a succession of repeated dependent processes leading towards a desired result. Noon translates this into a narrative technique. Indeed, Scribble does not move into a new space that can be conceptualized according to Cartesian grids; he is not, for example, moved in terms of coordinates from the room to the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless, an explicit shift of some sort certainly occurs. The result of narrative recursive iteration is one of apparent radical dislocation, from a paraspace to a self-similar paraspace—the movement from Vurt to a meta-Vurt. That is, there is a shift from a typical apartment to the self-similar organic fleshy room. The movement through paraspace that occurs in the novel when shifting among Vurt, meta-Vurt, and meta-meta-Vurt, etc. may best be understood, not as a movement from one locale to another, but as a succession of iterations within the paralogical locality that Noon establishes through his “fractal narrative.”
Accordingly, Noon appropriates recursive iteration and transcodes it from a mathematical process into an creative literary tool. Actual recursive iteration is subject to the logic of mathematics and the successive iterations follow a determined pattern; Noon’s narrative technique reproduces this process metaphorically. Noon’s algorithm is essentially imaginative: a sample of writing with a delimited yet malleable lexicon. All the narrative that does not represent feather hallucinations may be, for argument’s sake, regarded as the first iteration in the narrative process, while the hallucinatory episode of the fleshy room may be understood as the second iteration of this process.9 The meta-meta-Vurt episodes in the novel may be considered as the third iteration of the successive sequence of narratives. Interestingly, Noon reconciles the disagreement between Lyotard and Hayles over the universality of applicability in fractal geometry by showing how all structural and narrative shifts in the novel (from Vurt to a meta-Vurt or from a meta-Vurt to a meta-meta-Vurt) are subject to a fractal narrative process that applies itself to the text as a whole. Because Noon’s narrative strategy is a metaphorical appropriation of the mathematical process of recursive iteration, it paradoxically allows both the creative mobility of the author’s imagination and the determinism of iterative movement within the paralogical locality that the structure of the novel both creates and examines.
It is important at this point to make a distinction: while fractal geometry metaphorically determines the structure of the narrative, the manner in which the different iterations of Vurt realms interact is metonymic. Like Lyotard’s paralogical “horizon of dissensus,” the relationship between the Vurt realms is expressed by a succession of paraspatial narrative displacements. While recursive iteration as a mathematical process functions as a metaphor within the novel, however, this should not be confused with the relation between the iterations or paraspaces in the narrative of Vurt, which, like the relationship between radical localities according to Lyotard’s paralogy, function metonymically. The narrative structure of Vurt is essentially chaotic and nonlinear: that is, nonlinear not so much in terms of its narrative chronology but in terms of its spatial conception. Noon has written a novel that presents a narrative structure that shifts along a succession of metaphorical iterations; he has put a sample of text in and gotten a new sample of text out, etc. By rewriting a sample of the text itself, producing meta-texts or meta-Vurts, the narrative both represents and is dependent on self-similarity, like a fractal.
Perhaps the most notable example of the novel’s fractal structure can be found in the chapters titled “My first words” (170-72) and “Tapewormer” (173-88). In these chapters Scribble enters the Vurt realm by swallowing a “Tapewormer” feather. In doing so, his ultimate goal is to rewrite the past, to recede into memory and rework—if not literally, at least metaphorically—the opening of the novel. “My first words” is Scribble’s account of writing the opening lines of Vurt. “I remember thinking that if I ever get out of this with a body and soul still connected, well then,” he writes, “I was going to tell the whole story, and this is how it would start” (7). The following sentence is identical to that which opens the first chapter of the novel: “Mandy came out of the all-night Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies” (7, 171). But rather than continuing with his writing, Scribble drops a Vurt feather into his mouth, hoping he can rewrite the past retrospectively. That is, rather than making an attempt to consolidate his past through self-reflection and the act of writing, Scribble simply desires to escape and experience the opening of the novel differently, or as he puts it: “to feel the fade before the hit” (172).
The juxtaposition of the opening of the novel with the “Tapewormer” incident clarifies the paraspace that structures the narrative. The space Scribble enters in “Tapewormer” cannot be regarded as a traditional narrative flashback or a narrative shift in chronology; nor can the obvious differences be blamed on Scribble’s unreliable narration. Rather, this juxtaposition highlights a shift from one iterative move to another along a chain of successive iterations. The similarities the reader notes between the “Tapewormer” episode and the opening of the novel are the result of the correspondence between the narrative structure and the fractal quality of self-similarity along different stages of iteration.
Chapter 1, titled “Stash Riders,” opens with the sentence, “Mandy came out of the all-night Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies” (7). It differs from the first line of “Tapewormer” by the substitution of a name: “Desdemona came out of the all-night Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies” (173). In “Stash Riders,” the opening line is followed by a scene describing the dense slums of Manchester—complete with “a genuine dog, flesh and blood mix” and a homeless “robo-crusty” with “a thick headful of droidlocks and a dirty handwritten card —‘hungry n homeless. please help’” (7). The “Tapewormer” account, however, is entirely devoid of any description of the city; the opening line is simply followed by the statement, “[there] was no trouble, a nice clean pick-up. Des is an expert and we love her for that” (173). The discrepancies between the descriptions of Desdemona, the “expert,” and Mandy, who is “all twitching steps and head-jerks” (7), do not, however, affect the structural similarities between the two sections. Rather these discrepancies serve as a sentimental and nostalgic value judgment on behalf of Scribble. The exclusion of the description of the city in the second account also serves this agenda. Presumably Manchester is the same; it is Scribble’s idolization of Desdemona that accounts for his omission.10 Structurally, however, the two passages are inextricably self-similar; the differences are primarily due to Scribble’s judgment of the events.
Mandy, who is altogether absent in “Tapewormer,” is new to the group. At the opening of “Stash Riders,” she is assigned to pick up an English Voodoo feather, an act she fails to accomplish. The Stash Riders are left
waiting in the van for the new girl. Beetle was up front, ladies’ leather gloves pulled tight onto his fingers, smeared with Vaz.... I was in the back, perched on the left-side wheel housing, Bridget on the other, sleeping. Some thin wisps of smoke were rising from her skin. The Thing-from-Outer-Space lay between us, writhing on the tartan rug. He was leaking oil and wax all over the place, lying in a pool of his own juices. (7)
The “Tapewormer” episode, on the other hand, makes no mention of waiting. As early as the fourth sentence of the chapter, Scribble writes,
we rode the stash back to the flat, the fearless four of us: Beetle and Bridget, Desdemona and I. The Beetle was up front, the van pilot, Vaz-smeared for extra performance. I was on the left-side wheel housing, Brid was on the right. She was fast asleep, so what’s new? Desdemona was sitting between us, slightly forward, with the treasure sack in her lap. (173)
Again, the similarity of the two passages demands the reader’s attention. The first passage takes the opportunity to mention that they are “waiting in the van for the new girl” while the second passage omits any mention of waiting. Logically, the reader is to assume that, if a character went into the all-night Vurt-U-Want, the remaining characters waited in the van; the omission of mentioning the wait in the second passage is simply a narrative manipulation employed by Scribble to emphasize what he sees to be the more ideal of the two incidents—the structural reality of the events, however, remains self-similar and beyond Scribble’s control. The manner in which Scribble treats the naming of the characters in the two passages is also significant. While in the first passage Scribble dismisses Mandy by calling her “the new girl” rather than by her proper name, he seems to treat the naming of characters with more deliberation in the second. The characters are paired according to their emotional connections with one another: “Beetle and Bridget, Desdemona and [Scribble],” while in the first passage each character is treated in isolation from the others. Furthermore, Beetle is attributed a definite article in a narrative attempt to emphasize the significance of Scribble’s respect for, and fear of, the driver.
Overall, the narrative of the second passage is fundamentally more optimistic in its attitude towards the situation and more respectfully cautious in the treatment of character. The character exchange between the absurdly titled Thing-from-Outer-Space that leaks “oil and wax all over the place” and lies “in a pool of his own juices” and Desdemona with a “treasure sack in her lap” has a dual function. On the one hand, it symbolizes the exchange, according to Hobart’s rule, that occurs when Scribble loses his sister to the Vurt. On the other hand, Desdemona functions as a poignant juxtaposition to the oily Thing in Scribble’s sentimental and idealized narrative in “Tapewormer.” And while Mandy returns with the wrong feathers and the police pursue them in a destructive high-speed car chase back to the apartment, Desdemona simply returns with the correct feather, “a Yellow ... a pure and golden flight path” (173), and the ride back to the apartment is described succinctly and without effort: “It was a smooth road” (173). Despite Scribble’s doctored narrative in “Tapewormer,” the structure of the two accounts remain congruous and self-similar: the van, Beetle driving, Scribble and Bridget sitting in parallel locations, a character (the Thing, in the former account, and Desdemona, in the latter) positioned between Scribble and Bridget, and finally the ride back to the apartment building. In other words, there appears to be a structural determinism overriding Scribble’s desire to reorder and revise the events that open the novel. The fractal quality of Scribble’s two accounts ultimately determines the structural self-similarity, at no matter what point of iteration the narrative occurs.
The deterministic self-similar structure among different successive iterations of the fractal story becomes increasingly apparent in “Tapewormer.” In the van, on the route back to the apartment, Desdemona displays the “Takshaka Yellow” feather:
“Takshaka Yellow,” she said, all quiet like.
There was a suck of breath as we all breathed it in, all those perfumes, those pleasures to come.
“Takshaka ?” I said, unbelieving.
“Takshaka fucking Yellow!” screamed the Beetle, letting the wheel slip for a second. I felt the van careen over to the pavement, and then the jolt as it took the kerb at speed. For a second or two we were travelling in chaos. (174)
Beetle’s dissonant interjection prompts Scribble unsuccessfully to order him to stop disrupting the peaceful harmony of the scene: “Beetle! You shouldn’t be doing that!... Because this is supposed to be perfect.... [T]his is my trip, Beetle.... Let me ride it” (174). But Beetle’s actions appear to be determined to follow the same structural pattern as that in “Stash Riders.” When ordered by Scribble to stop destroying the scene that the narrator quixotically attempts to reconstruct, Beetle is unmoved: “‘Tell me why, little man?!’ he screamed. And then: ‘Awooooooh!!!!! Let’s rock!’ And he drove that van into a let’s all go out in a blaze of yellow glory” (174). Beetle’s response to Scribble’s plea for a perfectly reordered narrative, “Fuck perfect” (174), corresponds to the consistency of self-similar structure despite the different levels of ontological iterations in the fractal narrative. Indeed, both incidents lead to scenes with remarkable narrative self-similarity. The chapter “(Some Serious) Skull Shit” opens with this scene:
Brid was slumped on the settee, slow-gazing at the two-week-old copy of the Game Cat. Beetle was standing by the window, leafing through the feather stash. He had the snake head pinned to his jacket lapel. I had the right side of my face laid out on the dining table, my left eye fixed on a small lump of apple jam.... The Thing-from-Outer-Space was lying on the floor, waving for a fix, his grease dripping onto Bridget’s Turkish rug. (26)
The parallel passage in “Tapewormer” is as follows:
We made an easy, snakeless flight up the stairways, into the pad, which welcomed us with a show of lights. Now Brid was slumped on the settee, slow-gazing at a three-week-old copy of the Game Cat. Beetle was standing by the window, stroking the saffron feather. (177)
What Scribble attempts to restructure through narrative in “Tapewormer” is ultimately in vain. Both scenes lead to unfulfilling shifts into a Vurt hallucination: in “(Some Serious) Skull Shit” the shift is into a second iteration meta-Vurt, while “Tapewormer” presents a meta-meta-Vurt, or third iteration of the fractal narrative. Consequently, the paraspace that the novel inhabits is determined by the quality of self-similarity in the structure of the narrative.
This deterministic fractal structure is intimately linked to the theme of the novel. In an interview with Anthony Johnston, Noon remarked that
If you actually examine Vurt, there are serious things going on in there which nobody ever talks about. It’s about escape, and facing up to the realities of what it is you’re trying to escape from. This is something that happens again and again in my work; it’s one of the themes that I pinpointed as being a typical Manchester story. The need to escape from your situation.
And while Noon admits to the social implication of his writing, what makes the theme of escape so poignant in Vurt is that the fractal structure of the novel makes the possibility of physical escape altogether impossible. To step outside a world-view, particularly one with a chaotic and fractal structure, is a fundamentally paradoxical act; nevertheless, the desire to escape is ever-present. As Hayles writes:
The innocence of chaos is an assumption that is most tenable when one believes that the self is not itself constructed by the same forces that are replicated in theories and in the social matrix. When theory, self, and culture are caught in the postmodern loop, the construction of chaos cannot be unambiguous, because it derives from and feeds into the same forces that made us long for escape. (293)
The feather hallucinations are perhaps the most explicit means by which Noon articulates the desire for escape. In particular, the feather “Blue Lullaby” emphasizes the demand for feather hallucinations to act as a means of escape. The Game Cat explains that “BLUE LULLABY is for when life gets bad. When life deals a stupid hand. If you should ever find your give-a-fuck factor has gone down to zero, this is the feather for you” (91). This feather, the Game Cat explains, is like being wrapped up in “blankets and cuddles” and makes all the bad things one can experience seem, “well, you know, kind of good all of a sudden” (91). He explains that Blue Lullaby “can cure the tiny troubles; it fucks out on the big troubles, just makes them worse.... [T]he Cat doesn’t like these let’s-make-everything-sweet feathers. Life’s to be lived, not to be dreamt about” (91).11 Indeed, while the locales of escape—such as a Vurt, meta-Vurt, or meta-meta Vurt, ad infinitum—are infinitely vast, there is nevertheless a sort of claustrophobic paradox for the characters in the novel. They are contained absolutely within a postmodern paraspace where the possibility of physical escape is inherently foreclosed.
The climax of Vurt coincides with Scribble’s “facing up to the realities of what it is [he’s] trying to escape from” (293). Scribble at this point has the Curious Yellow feather in his possession—the feather that will allow him to enter the Vurt and exchange the Thing for his sister/lover, allowing her to return to the “real” world with him. The Thing has been shot and killed by the police, however; and while Scribble is no longer in possession of anything that can be used in an exchange, he decides to enter Curious Yellow regardless of this fact. The act of entering Curious Yellow without the Thing to make the exchange is of central importance for Scribble’s eventual fate. That is, negating the possibility of material exchange between the two realms signifies Scribble’s increasing knowledge and acceptance of both the structure of the space in which he exists and how the qualities of that structure will determine his mourning and consolation.
The gradual process Scribble must undergo towards acceptance and consolation culminates in the climactic chapter, “A Curious House.” Here Scribble enters Curious Yellow wishing to reencounter Desdemona. But what occurs instead is a confrontation with the reality of his dysfunctional family: his incestuous relationship with his sister and repeated harmful encounters with his abusive father. Structurally, the nature of this confrontation accords with the chaotic and fractal structure of the novel as a whole; the quality of self-similarity in the structure of the book dictates that the characters must operate in accord with determined narrative patterns. The chapter describes the same incident three times; the chronological time continuum of the narrative moves towards a certain penultimate point before looping back upon itself, ultimately ending up where it began. This process may be understood most effectively as a metaphorical version of a “strange loop,” a concept originally developed by Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach—a book that had a significant influence on Vurt.12 Hofstadter explains the concept in I Am a Strange Loop:
What I mean by “strange loop” is ... not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. (101-102)
Fractals and video feedback are appropriate examples of strange loops (204). One of the most significant applications of Hofstadter’s strange loop, however, is as a model for consciousness itself. Hofstadter notes that he believes
that the explanations of “emergent” phenomena in our brains—for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will—are based on a kind of Strange Loop, and interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, [while] at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level.... The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself. (Gödel 709)
In this regard, the shift Noon makes from the fractal quality of the novel’s structure to the more explicitly strange-loop quality of consciousness is evident. Indeed, it is this shift—from the geometrically fractal quality of the narrative to the “strange loopiness” of Scribble’s eventual “facing up” to his trauma—that forces him metaphorically to take a look “at himself,” rather than to escape to another physical locale.
The chapter “A Curious House” opens with Scribble, now being called by his given name Stephen, in conversation with himself at a bathroom mirror as he shaves using his father’s “open razor”—despite the fact that his father “hated [Stephen] using it” (300). Talking to himself, “Looking good, Stephen” (300), Scribble/Stephen laments that he could not get his sister the birthday gift she would have wanted. The Scribble/Stephen conversation comes to an abrupt end when he takes a “nick out of [his] face” and “when [he] looked into the mirror to stop the flow it was [his] father’s face that [he] dabbed at” (301). This first of three incidents, each respectively corresponding to the three episodes in “A Curious House,” demonstrates how the structure of successive iterations through recursion and self-similarity ultimately determines, and is determined by, subject matter and imagery. After nicking his face with the razor, Scribble’s description of the blood that “fell into the water, swirling” (301) visually signifies the self-similar loop that structures the narrative. The story now takes a violent shift as the father seizes the razor, intending to attack and kill his son. Scribble/Stephen urges himself to “Jerk out” of the Curious Yellow Vurt—an act that entails forcefully wrenching oneself out of a Vurt realm back into ordinary reality. At this climactic point, the narrative unpredictably loops back to where it started: “Looking good, Stephen” (302).
A second loop ultimately follows the same pattern as the first. Scribble/Stephen is having a conversation with himself in the mirror; the conversation concerns an unsatisfactory gift, or lack of a gift, for Desdemona’s birthday (302). In this loop, Scribble/Stephen is not shaving and the imagery of the drip of swirling blood signifying the deterministic self-similarity between the structure and content of the novel is changed; instead, he is attempting to tie a “Windsor knot” (302). Again the narrative shifts to violence when the reflection in the mirror is transformed from Stephen to the father. The father once more attempts to murder Scribble/Stephen, this time by choking his son to death with the tie: “He pulled the knot tight. Tight! Pulling down on each end of the tie until my throat was closing and the breath leaving me” (303). And again, Scribble/Stephen escapes his murder by, so he thinks, “jerking out” of Curious Yellow only to realize, in this episode/loop, that “you can’t jerk out of a Yellow” (304; emphasis in original). This realization is crucial, as Scribble must learn to reject the notion of physical escape; he cannot truly become physically removed from the trauma he has experienced and so desperately wishes to leave behind.
In the third loop there is a certain degree of variation. The narrative again curls back on itself: “Looking good, Scribble” (304). Neither having a conversation with himself in the mirror nor without a gift for his sister, Scribble is now with Desdemona discussing what they should do for her birthday. The gift he gives her is a feather. Regardless of these variations, a similar pattern of events follows. Desdemona, with the feather in her mouth, metamorphoses into Scribble’s father who subsequently stabs Scribble in the back with a razor. Scribble pulls the feather from his father’s mouth and places it in his own. Rather than through the imagery of swirling blood or the Windsor knot, here the implication of the loopiness of the narrative is represented at the level of syntax:
looking good Stephen cheers looking good Stephen cheers looking good Stephen cheers cheers my face bathed in yellow light which is bathed in yellow light which is ... which is a man’s blade the blade swinging for me in the mirror of the mirror of the mirror curiouser and curiouser the blade swinging a thousand times as it ... Layers upon layers.... (309; emphasis in original)
The act of putting the feather in his mouth may allow Scribble to momentarily attack and escape his father and enter a meta-Vurt (or meta-meta Vurt) where he can finally meet with Desdemona and initiate the exchange. She can return to a different iteration of Vurt reality—the “originary” iteration—while he will stay behind. But Scribble’s consolation occurs in a self-similar space of radical and paradoxical locality: the strange loop of his own consciousness. The death/disappearance of the father and the separation from his sister, both emotional and paraspatial, allow Scribble to face himself: he ultimately—though dubiously—writes that, through this separation, “[Desdemona’s] wounds have healed; so have mine” (323; emphasis in original). While the fractal structure of the novel determines the process through which Scribble must face himself, it is the archetypically self-similar strange loop of his own sense of self that ultimately constitutes the novel’s subject matter. Scribble’s quest ends on a characteristically Borgesian note. Just as Borges’s labyrinthine quests usually come to an end with the attainment of knowledge that can be affectively experienced only with ambivalence, so too does Vurt. The novel leads to a resolution once Scribble realizes his situation is one of circularity and immanence that cannot be escaped.
Vurt represents an interesting type of narrative related non-hierarchically at various levels, from the fractal quality of the story’s structure down to the strange loop of the protagonist’s own consciousness at the moment of consolation; the relationship between the structure and content of the novel is, therefore, metonymic. Noon’s transliteration of chaos theory into Vurt’s literary metaphors, the metonymic relationship between multiple ontological levels, and the tale’s poignant aesthetics mark an ever-increasing feedback loop of influence among the sciences, popular science, art, and the humanities that may account for slipstream narratives. Hayles argues that “many scientists have commented that working on chaos has allowed them to renew their sense of wonder” (292), that “chaos is an image for what can be touched but not grasped, felt but not seen,” and that it signifies something more than “novelty” and “the precession of simulacra” (293); ultimately, this new sense of wonder and mystery impresses itself with force upon the popular imagination. Noon, in conversation with Anthony Johnston, said “in this whole kind of pro-postmodern world we’re living in, I think it’s fruitful that people can discover new ways of telling stories. The way we live now, I call it Liquid Culture, and I think to find the prose equivalent of that is great” (Johnston). Noon “hopes [his] work becomes part of that” literary movement effectively representing a chaotic and postmodern episteme. Indeed, Noon’s engagement with chaotics is not only an exciting aesthetic experiment but also, in its desire for epistemic sincerity, functions as a fictive equivalent for the ever-mutating contemporary cultural environment itself.
1. Ron Hogan notes that the word “Vurt ... was initially a stopgap, a word that Noon was using instead of ‘virtual reality’ until he could come up with a better name; the substitute was so odd-sounding that it stuck.”
2. The Game Cat sections, or mini-chapters, of the novel are typically dedicated to cryptically explaining various Vurt feathers; these are, presumably, excerpts from the Game Cat magazine. The magazine excerpts are a mixture of street wit and riddles, delivered in the tone of video-game magazines from the early- and mid-1990s. Furthermore, the Game Cat, as a character, lives permanently in the Vurt. Intermittently, he appears to impart hints—both to direct Scribble on his quest and to uncover critical narrative information for the reader—through riddles and philosophical aphorisms. Overall, the Game Cat is certainly a Cheshire Cat character and one of many Carrollian archetypes that both ornament and inform Noon’s fiction.
3. While the name of this feather evokes the 1967 Swedish sex/art film I Am Curious (Yellow), there is no explicit connection between the significance of the feather and the film.
4. The Game Cat explains this logic of exchange: “Sometimes we lose precious things. Friends and colleagues, fellow travelers in the Vurt, sometimes we lose them; even lovers we sometimes lose. And get bad things in exchange: aliens, objects, snakes, and sometimes even death. Things we don’t want. This is part of the deal ... all things, in all worlds, must be kept in balance” (69). The Game Cat provides Hobart’s rule, in equation form:
R = V + or – H, where H is Hobart’s constant. In the common tongue; any given worth of reality can only be swapped for the equivalent worth of Vurtuality, plus or minus 0.267125 of the original worth. Yes my kittlings, it’s not about weight or volume or surface area. It’s about worth. How much the lost ones count, in the grand scheme of things. You can only swap back those that add up to something, within Hobart’s constant. Like for like, give or take 0.267125. (69)
Weinstone, examining the Western literary link between drug addiction and transcendence, argues that the “H” in Hobart’s rule may be slang for heroin. Consequently, she argues that there is a literary tradition in which “junk” rhetoric is commodity rhetoric and links Hobart’s rule to William Burroughs’ pseudoscience of drug addiction that suggests “transcendence is for sale, and the price of admission is addiction” (81-82).
5. Though primarily discussing feminist issues in cyberpunk, Gordon equates the journey into virtual reality with the mythic trope of journeying into the underworld (196).
6. Hayles cites Jean Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, “where there are only copies of copies in an endless display of self-similar forms” none of which can be considered the original, and William Gibson’s cyberspace, where human beings and computers become “equally sentient entities vying for control of a space that is very real but entirely different from everyday life,” as two examples of postmodern spaces (289).
7. And time too: Scribble, who at the end of the novel is now living permanently in a Vurtrealm as a result of his apotheosis, writes: “I’m forty-one now. I feel about twenty-five or so. Look it, too. Living in Vurt really slows down the rate of change. God knows how old the Game Cat is. He looks a youthful fifty” (321; emphasis in original). Consequently, time in the virtual reality is simply “slowed down,” yet conceptually analogous to the time otherwise ordinarily experienced.
8. Lyotard’s concept of paralogy implements a form of resistance against the risk of totalitarianism in technocratic late-capitalist society, where a select group may control and exploit electronic databases. Paralogy, as a theoretical way of emancipating postmodern culture from technocratic totalitarianism, is unsuccessful insomuch as the concept, as Hayles suggests, “is akin to social Darwinism, in that it confuses scientific theories with social programs” (215). Furthermore, the validity of Lyotard’s conclusion in The Postmodern Condition—that paralogy may “wage war on totality” (82)—is highly questionable in light of the fact that the scientific disciplines that Lyotard appropriates are fundamentally in conflict with Lyotard’s program.
9. Since there is no evidence that the young boy exists in the primary level of fictional reality, the reader is left to assume that the narrative may be situated anywhere along the fractal chain of narrative iterations.
10. The reference is clearly to Shakespeare’s Othello (1603): the unshakeably faithful Desdemona remains loyal to her delusional and jealous husband even as he takes her life. Noon’s naming of Scribble’s lover as Desdemona is consequently ironic. Desdemona readily accepts Scribble’s self-sacrificing exchange of himself for her, which allows her to exit the Vurt and return to Manchester. Her devotion, unlike that of Shakespeare’s heroine’s, is entirely to herself.
11. Ironically, the Game Cat may not be aware that the “[life] to be lived” to which he refers may in fact be within the hallucination or dream of the “young boy” (1, 327). Nevertheless, this passage does suggest that he is aware that simply moving from one Vurt to another—or one iteration to another—cannot, due to their fractal structure, be equated with escape.
12. According to a short piece for the Guardian Unlimited, “Books Top 10: Jeff Noon’s Favorite Fluid Fiction,” Noon rates Gödel, Escher, Bach third only to the “Collected Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges” and “The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll, edited by Martin Gardner.” Noon describes Hofstadter’s tomeas
a complex, ticking bomb. This is easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read. It took me four goes, starting from the beginning each time, and it’s 750 pages, just to explain Gödel’s Theory of Incompleteness. Along the way Hofstadter takes in all human knowledge systems, including Lewis Carroll. Still not sure what it’s all about, but that’s beside the point. Again, ideas abound. There are passages in here, without which Vurt would not exist.
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