My body and particularly my mind are both conspiring to remind me, quite forcibly, what insomnia feels like. I have decided I will not let them win. I have decided, seeing as my mind has been casting back over particular memories, to write.
When I was much younger, barely a lad in Secondary school really, I read a book that startled and amazed me. I’m not the sort of person who would lightly use the words ‘life changing’ when describing a book but if you stick with this entry to the end you might realise why I readily call Jeff Noon‘s ‘Vurt’ a life-changer.
It started when I went on holiday to America. I think. In honesty the sequence of events that lead to this life changing experience are somewhat hazy to me all these years later. The book was published in 1993 but my story begins in 1992. I remember seeing something on television whilst on holiday but the memory is so strange I am to this day uncertain as to whether it was real or a dream. I remember it peculiarly vividly and yet at the same time not at all. There was a visual, as there is inclined to be on television. An animated sequence of a forest passing by train windows. The trees themselves were almost like paper shapes of leaves and tress cut out and animated by stop motion. Along with the image was a simple reading of very strange words. The words were about shadows, feathers, baked potatoes, manchester and dreams. If you’ve read Vurt this will make perfect sense to you. If you haven’t then perhaps your confusion will go some way to explaining why the imagination of a boy on the verge of teenagerdom was captured. (note: I have vague memories of contacting Jeff Noon with this whole story once upon a time and asking him if he ever contributed to any such state-side promotion of the book and I have equally vague recollection he said no, but take that with a grain of salt as so much of this story is lost to my failing memory and the surreal dream-like quality of the whole). I thought no more about it, until I returned home.
Unpacking from that trip I found something most peculiar. I found a note in my own hand writing that I didn’t remember writing. The note was an ISBN number. I knew what that was. Even as a child I was an avid reader. My school had an excellent reading-promotion scheme where parents could pay money into a fund and students whose parents did so could take books from a limited selection from a store run out of the school library. I exhausted its’ sci-fi and fantasy options in short order. ISBNs were not foreign to me. Showing complete (and perhaps unwise) faith in my own unremembered advice I headed at once to Waterstones1. I told them I wanted to order a book but when asked was unable to give them a title or author, just an ISBN. Not a problem, they assured me. They took my name, contact details, etc. What was a problem, however, was that no book with that ISBN number existed. Ruling the whole thing off as a bizarre little tale I left the shop and let the whole thing slip from my mind.
In a sensible universe the story would end there. The universe we live in is a strange and subtle thing, however.
I couldn’t say it was exactly one year later, though that sounds better for the sake of narrative, I received a phone call. “Your book’s arrived.”
(There’s no reply here because I was confused. I hadn’t ordered any such book, nor even heard of it.
“By Jeff Noon.”
(Still nothing. I hadn’t heard the name. I was about to suggest they had the wrong person when-)
“You placed an order with us last year.”
(My brain catches up with events and remembers the surreal dream-like TV reading, the hand-written note in my luggage, trying to order a book that didn’t exist…) “I’ll be right there.”
And so I came to own Vurt. Before I’d even arrived in the store it had taken on mythic properties in my mind. This was the book that some unseen act of my own, whether it was time travel or premonition or simple phenomenally unlikely probabilities had lead me here. What would I find? It was the ultimate mystery novel just at that moment. Not a whodunnit but a book that was, itself, the mystery.
Then I read it.
Impressionable youth, perhaps, would never have been allowed to read it today with digital distributors putting recommended ages on their products. I wouldn’t say it was unsuitable for a 13 year old but I’m notoriously liberal. Perhaps if I had a 13 year old child I’d find it unsuitable for them. I do know it had an effect.
Words, about shadows, feathers, baked potatoes, manchester and dreams. I’d never read a book so fast before. I haven’t since. I’m not normally a fast reader but Vurt occupied my every waking minute for two days and then it was part of my consciousness. If you find this all a little hard to believe, try looking at it from my perspective. Whilst the details are hazy I can hold my hand on my heart and promise you that what I’ve written here is as true as I can possibly recall it. These are the recollections of a child, later a teenager. One who at this point had not tasted alcohol bar perhaps a fleeting sip of wine on a camping holiday in France and drugs no more potent than a child’s cough syrup. It’s my truth and it bothers me as much as it delights me.
That said, I have a little more to say…
In those days I used to have a ritual when I went to bed. It’s a habit I’m no longer in and one I regret losing. I used to write. I had this old, beat up laptop computer that barely managed to run a text editor. There was no internet in those days, mind you and the fact that it couldn’t play games was (in this one context) good as it provided for no distractions. It was almost a handy, light weight electronic type-writer without the need for ribbons or paper. I must have written at least three novel length manuscripts on that thing. Not good ones, but full and complete. Stories of enormous, bipedal warmachines doing battle in ruined city scapes that would be familiar to any Battletech fan. Tales of the derring-do of power-armoured lords of battle that any Warhammer 40k fan would find highly recognisable. It was crap but it was mine.
Then I wrote something else.
I’m not clear on the exact details these days but I do remember my hero discovering a peculiar exhaust outlet on a rooftop he had no business being on that sent him deep into realms where physics, logic and reason were… other. Exploring deeper he discovered the huge, labyrinthine and abandoned workings of a distillery, of sorts, condensing and purifying the fantasies of the guests in the hotel rooms below. Innocent but strange looking spidery fronds in the hotel room ceilings explained away as sprinklers lead to towering and serpentine brass pipes connecting huge vats and machinery. It was all very Steampunk and many years before I’d know what Steampunk was.
It was the best thing I ever wrote. But it wasn’t Vurt. Or Pollen. In my mind it was a pale shadow of something truly wonderful. Looking back on it, though, I like the idea. Maybe I should write again.
1 – note for the younger reader: Waterstones was a book shop of the old fashioned sort, before Apple and Amazon colluded to reposition the book as a digital product. It existed on high streets and was a wonderful place to spend time, though most people only did so when it rained.