Falling Out of Cars
Extra Content – 2002
The new novel is now finished, and handed into the publishers. Falling Out of Cars is my first novel since leaving Manchester. It’s been an interesting journey, to say the least, discovering a new way to write, without the bedrock of the old city. First of all I went through a period of intense experimentation, with language itself as my subject matter. Out of this came my book of textual manipulations, Cobralingus. After this, I felt the need to return once again to storytelling. I then went through many false starts, with many different story ideas, before the idea of the new novel finally took hold. The work brings together several ideas, a few of which link back to previous books, many of them new. I really don’t want to give out any major plot details, because the surprise is in the telling. So here I will only talk about the underlying themes and moods of the book.
I like to call Falling out of Cars a transcendental road novel. A journey through a strangely transformed, diseased, England. Four desperate people, strangers, in a beat-up old car, brought together in search of certain misplaced, and seemingly magical objects. So, there’s a (very) loose connection to the classic Fantasy plot of the quest through the wounded land, albeit set in a recognisable reality. And the quest is not the governing force behind the novel; these people are, to all intents and purposes, lost. They’re driving, just driving. Running away, each from their own personal troubles.
The English road novel has always been seen as a problematic genre, compared to the American model. There’s just not enough space in this country, for people to get lost in. However, I was interested in the number of books that have come out in the last few years, dealing with the idea of the “non-space”. All those journeys around the London orbital, and through the cold wastes of suburbia. The Boring Postcards book also plays with this idea. So, maybe an English road novel can journey through these various non-spaces, this is where the sense of loss will be most intensely felt.
It’s a first person narrative, told through the journal of Marlene, one of the travellers. Because of the nature of the land, the disease, and also because of her own damaged psyche, Marlene is a very unreliable narrator. Exactly what is really happening, and what imagined, and how can we tell the difference? Out of this comes the question of self-identity; how, in a time of shifting images, can we really know who we are? These are themes shared with the Mappalujo project. The two works were written at the same time. Although entirely different in style, there is a strange and fruitful osmosis between the two projects.
The disease that Marlene is suffering from is an invented one, whose details I will not mention at this point, beyond saying that it’s an imagined outcome of certain traits in contemporary society. The actual notebook that Marlene uses is also affected by the same disease. This is the final level of ambiguity. Just what is this thing we are reading, how can we trust it? Is it really possible to capture reality in words? Marlene starts off writing in a journalistic style, and gradually a more poetic expression takes over. Only in this way, can she hope to capture her experiences. The difference between the first, and the last, pages of the novel, just on the level of personal expression, is very pronounced. Words become a part of the trip, a mutating map through which she travels. The book is a study of a woman, and a country, falling off the edge of reality.
Some people have told me they found the book rather “dark”. Whilst I will not disagree with this opinion, I have tried to write a truthful book about the way we live now, as I see it, and allow for a certain element of hope. I guess I’m entering my Surrealist Noir period. If this sounds all too serious, rest assured that the journey also involves various car chases, gunplay, existential gangsters, magical events, and general weirdness. I suppose the major difference between Falling Out of Cars, and my earlier books, is that this time the strangeness comes directly out of the characters’ psyches, rather than being a part of the outside world. This, I hope, leads to a much more unnerving experience for the reader.
by Jeff Noon
Extra Content 2
My early novels and stories were set in Manchester. When I left there, moving to Brighton, I knew that it might take a while before I could start writing again, in any serious way. There was a sense of roots being pulled loose from the ground.
I started various projects, just messing about really, searching for new inspirations. I had about fifty pages concerning a group of teenage girls in Brighton, all of them hooked on playing chess. It doesn’t sound very exciting, to be sure. But there it was. The main character was called Tupelo. A teenage girl of the same name had turned up in a very early draft of Needle in the Groove. I just liked the name, I suppose, it being the birth place of Elvis Presley.
The novel reached a dead end. I tried various other plot ideas, none of them offering the requisite buzz I need to keep writing. I was now entering my usual period of worry, whenever a novel refuses to reveals itself. These feelings were made worse by the fact of the move to a new location. I didn’t particularly want to just start setting stories in Brighton. But where else could I wrote about? I was stuck.
One of the other things I briefly looked at was the idea of Alice’s mirror. This comes from an old short story, “Latitude 52″, originally published in an anthology called Intoxication. I had deliberately kept this work back from my collection, Pixel Juice, because the central idea was just too powerful to be left as a short story. It needed to be given another life, a second chance of being told. The story imagined that the original mirror that Alice had travelled though in Through the Looking Glass, had been smashed, and the pieces scattered around the country. Over the years, various mad collectors had tried to find them. They were treasured objects, magical items offering a tiny glimpse into another world, a dreamworld. I had always seen this story as being a good way to bring my Lewis Carroll obsession up to date. So I spent a while trying to write a new novel, using the broken mirror as a plot device. Unfortunately, once again the idea came to nothing.
There was another little idea floating around. I can’t remember exactly where the notion of the rising noise levels came from. Perhaps there was something in the paper about the amount of information we have to process these days, just by walking down the street. Or maybe I read something about Communication Theory. Basically, the theory describes a pathway along which any message has to pass, starting from a transmitting device, towards a receiver. This pathway exists for any kind of communication, telephone lines, semaphore signals, even two people talking to each other. Noise is the name given to any kind of interference that affects a message as it passes along the pathway. Static on a telephone line is an obvious example. Snow on a video screen another. Even stumbling over your words can be seen as noise. Something gets lost on the way between transmitter and receiver.
Okay, let’s do the big what if? What of the level of noise started to rise, for some as yet unknown reason. How would that affect communication systems? What if the noise became so pronounced that hardly anything of a message could get through the system. We couldn’t read properly, we couldn’t decode advertisements. Perhaps it would reach a point where even talking face to face with another person became impossible. The noise becomes a sickness, affecting everything and everybody. How would that change society? This is the typical process I might go through, just finding some weird idea, and running with it, pushing it to the limits. But at the moment it was only that, an idea and nothing more. I had a single sentence that I liked, that I thought might well start the novel off: ‘If you can read this sentence, it means you’re alive.’ That was all. It sounded like a message from the future, a warning, a celebration, even. Also, it brought into play the whole question of how a book could even be written in the days of the sickness, wouldn’t the noise infect the words being used to tell the story?
I had the idea that looking into mirrors would be the worse thing you could do, because the noise sickness would mutate your own self image so much it would drive people mad. Maybe this idea could be merged with that of the broken fragments of Alice’s mirror? This was exciting. There was definitely something about the idea, it seemed to have a lot of potential. Trouble was, no story as yet, no characters, no idea of what the book might feel like. I spent a time trying different approaches, all leading nowhere. Eventually, I decided that I needed some kind of meta-kick, a very deliberate and chance-driven starting point. I decided to go back to a series of notebooks I had used to document ideas, many years before, when I first started writing in a serious manner. I told myself that I would open the first of these notebooks at the first page, and use the idea that was given there. And that whatever this was, I would use it as the opening of the novel. It seems a bit mad, I suppose. But nevertheless, this is what I did. This first notebook was started about ten years ago, when I was trying to become a playwright. So all the notes in it refer to ideas for plays. Here’s the first one.
Two men and a woman are resting in a hotel room, in some undisclosed foreign land. The two men are soldiers. They are waiting for a third soldier, their sergeant, to come back with some news. A war had been fought a few years previously, with the British Army involved. The three soldiers have come back to this country after receiving news that the body of one of their fellow soldiers has been found, after years of being “missing in action”. The sergeant has gone out to try and find the location of this body. I had the idea that a lot of bizarre red tape would be involved. The woman is a journalist. She’s come along for the trip, to write it up for a newspaper, as a human interest story.
That was it. I started to write. First of all I shifted the story back to England. One character stayed a soldier, or in this case an ex-soldier, John Peacock. The journalist became Marlene, the narrator of the novel. The third character I changed into Tupelo, a teenage girl that has somehow become involved in this. They’re all waiting for a fourth character, Henderson, to come back. What are they doing? They’re looking for the pieces of Alice’s mirror. The noise sickness is rising. I kept writing, and before I knew it Marlene was having some kind of attack, suffering from too much noise, and she passes out. End of chapter.
Wow. Not bad. I was writing, at the very least. What next? I turned to the second idea in the notebook. I won’t go into details of that, but it lead to the chapter in the novel where Peacock kills and swaps identities with Spender. I realised that this second chapter actually took place before the first chapter, but I kept it where it was for the moment. I now pushed on with the story, with Marlene in the toilet, looking into the mirror. A really crazy idea came to me then. Perhaps I could structure the book so that alternate chapters moved forward and backward. The book would start in the middle of the action (the hotel room) and then show what happened before that, and then after that, and so on, like a strange concertina effect. I had the idea that the last two chapters of the book would reveal how the story started, and how it all ends. It was of course an incredibly complex structure for a novel. Nevertheless, I pressed on with it, and the chapters that moved backwards naturally lead me to think of how they had arrived at this hotel. The idea of the road trip came into being; they were travelling around the country looking for the fragments of glass from Alice’s mirror. Funnily enough, the chess imagery from the earlier incarnation of Tupelo didn’t come into it until quite late on; I had somehow or other forgotten that Through the Looking Glass is a chess game! One of those strange coincidences that always seem to happen, in the creative process. The last element of the narrative to arrive was the idea that the characters would travel through the non-spaces of Britain: the lay-bys, garage forecourts, new towns, shopping centres, building sites, motorway service stations, and the like. This is where Marlene and her friends would get lost, not in the wide open spaces, but the gaps between.
After producing about 100 pages of this first draft, I showed it various people, all of whom were more than a little confused by it, especially the backwards and forwards structure. I looked it over again, and decided to unravel the structure, as it were, to push the story into chronological order. Once this was done, I carried on writing it in a normal way, adding some chapters to the beginning, and then moving on to do the final third of the book. As the various drafts were written, I was determined that the book would retain an element of mystery, that not everything would be explained. This seemed important, in light of the subject matter. The more that is explained, the less the sense of mystery. It’s a delicate balancing act.
I hope that people like the book. The noise is a rich subject, and I believe, given the ways of the world, an important subject.
by Jeff Noon