Jeff Noon, Channel Sk1n

It’s hard for me to explain quite how important Jeff Noon’s work was to my reading when I was younger. I was about fifteen when I discovered Needle in the Groove, and I fell in love very quickly. It’s been at least five years since I read a Noon book, and I was a little apprehensive about Channel Sk1n; it turns out however much I’ve changed in the last decade-and-a-bit Noon’s prose still works for me. The following (a version of last week’s Left of Cool column) is rather fangirly.

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I was a teenager when I first discovered Jeff Noon. I found his Needle in the Groove (music, drugs, alternate Manchester) and Vurt (virtual reality, drugs, alternate Manchester) in a library and very quickly fell in love. This was before the arrival of the online bookstore and at the time the best I could do was to scour local bookshops and make pleading noises at friends and relatives travelling to the UK. It was a sort of global treasure hunt, and within a few years I’d almost collected the set. I read 2002’s Falling Out of Cars mere weeks after it had been published, and finally felt that I had caught up.

It took me a while to realise that Noon had also brought me back to science fiction. Because while all of his novels might be considered science fictional, that was never, for me, the point of them. The point was Noon’s prose, which broke and stuttered and fragmented itself into poetry.

So I was thrilled earlier this year to discover that the author had written another novel, his first in a decade. Channel Sk1n is a novel about the media, information and the idea of celebrity. Noon’s protagonist, Nola Blue, is a pop star of the most plastic, manufactured variety. So much is she a product of her industry and manager that she has trouble recognising herself. Yet her last song hasn’t done as well as it ought to have, and it appears that her days of celebrity are close to an end. Then Nola becomes infected with a strange virus that connects her with the television signals that play so big a part in the world in which she lives, so that her body begins to broadcast TV. Nola’s skin literally becomes the screen.

There’s another major character. The world of Channel Sk1n is one that is obsessed with reality television, and no programme is more popular than The Pleasure Dome. The Dome is a structure that holds one person, chosen from many competitors, in isolation for weeks at a time. The Dome picks up on each of their thoughts and displays them in constantly changing colours and shapes upon its surface. It is the ultimate form of voyeurism. In addition, other channels broadcast every movement of the person inside. When the book opens, the Dome’s inhabitant is Melissa Gold, daughter of Nola’s agent. Trapped in the Dome, it seems Melissa can do very little to influence matters outside; yet she achieves the impossible. It all culminates in a dreamlike, paradoxical climax that may be more powerful than anything Noon has ever written.

As with all of Jeff Noon’s work, it’s tempting to sit back and let the words flow over you. Channel Sk1n is more pared down than much of the author’s earlier work, but the blurring of lines between prose and poetry is a constant. Occasionally it bursts into static, pages filled with symbols that might easily be mistaken for a formatting error. This works particularly well in context because Channel Sk1n is only available as an ebook. It’s tempting to read into Nola’s loss of identity as a musician through her connection with the music industry some of the same impulses that may have led Noon to self-publish this book.

Noon’s move towards self-publishing means that his back catalogue will also soon be made available in electronic form. Some (notably Cobralingus, which always sat rather awkwardly within the confines of the traditional printed book) will even be enhanced by the new format. Readers who discover the writer through Channel Sk1n will not have to spend years hunting down his works.

We’ve reached a point as a culture where the reality-TV-dystopia is a genre in itself (and hopefully someone somewhere has coined a less clunky name for it). I’m not sure yet whether Channel Sk1n brings anything substantially new to the debate, but it’s a smart, strong piece of work.

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