[...]a novel is a labyrinth; a labyrinth is a novel. That's a truth well hidden behind conventional narrative. But a certain kind of reader, we believed, would relish the challenge of this new book.
Well, Jeff Noon's The Body Library is by no means the most labyrinthine novel I've read, although it has a maze in form of a high-rise; nor is it the most challenging. It is, however, a satisfying genre-bender, offering a compelling mystery and some smart meta-discussion about stories and storytelling.
The year is 1959. After the events in A Man of Shadows, private eye John Nyquist has found shelter in the town of Storyville. Just like the name suggests, Storyville is a city made of many tales, supervised by the Narrative Council, which is situated at Kafka Court, because of course it is. Nyquists own story starts when he wakes up next to a dead man – a man he apparently has killed himself. The circumstances of this murder are quite mysterious, as the dead man has been the subject matter of Nyquist's latest investigation. Still confused, Nyquists begins to investigate the strange high-rise where he woke up and meets a woman, Zelda, a prostitute hired by the recently deceased. Soon both find themselves the target of other occupants. A man with a face of scars is looking for answers Nyquist can't give, a young boy is not as harmless as he seems, and something in the high-rise seems to be casting a spell. Nyquist and Zelda can get away, but lose all memory of what exactly happened to them. Soon after, Zelda winds up dead. It looks like suicide, but Nyquists suspects murder and pledges to find Zelda's killer. Meanwhile, the Narrative Council comes knocking and wants some information about a certain body in a certain high-rise... And that's really just the start of it.
Noon described The Body Library as an example of Avantgarde Pulp. It's a detective story in close embrace with the uncanny. I found it a more successful endeavour than it's predecessor. Nyquist second adventure is at the same time more and less classic noir, offering a stronger plot and stronger ties between plot and surrealism. Maybe it helped to finally have a sense of time: The events take place in an alternative 1959, something I didn't get from A Man of Shadows (it's possible I just missed it, but I don't think the year was ever mentioned in that book). The Body Library is also more Noonian (and if this isn't a word, it totally should be).
The hardboiled detective tropes are all in place, but convincingly executed: Nyquist is still the epitome of the noir private eye, taciturn, melancholy and into the ladies, and spends a good deal of the book being beaten up (and worse). But he gains some personality. His prime feature is his stubbornness: Once he's committed to a task, he just won't let go. Of course, a pulp story also needs a dame, some goons, an enigmatic femme who could be fatale. Star of the show is the city itself though, Storyville, where every life is a tale and every tale is alive, where the novelists spin stories and the taletellers deliver verbal accounts of adventures great and small, where whisper poets whisper and shadowy agencies specialise in erasure. In such a setting, it's no great surprise – and no spoiler – that the core of the mystery is a book, the titular The Body Library, and that its mystery is tied to avantgarde techniques of storytelling - like the cut-up technique, of which the title is just the first example.
Creating atmosphere and unforgettable pictures has always been Noon's strong suite, and here he delivers again. The Body Library is ripe with vivid images, from bodies crawling with words to glowing Alphabugs to pages seeping blood (here you can find a few pictures by Alex Storer inspired by this book. I think they complement it quite well). A story about stories is bound to become incredibly meta, and Noon uses this to great effect, too. He incorporates myths and legends and some nods to his older works; places wear the names of great writers and poets, the Narrative Council is a neat addition that Kafka would be proud of, and while seeing characters discussing their own fictionality is not entirely new, I find it always entertaining. And thus the book left me excited for whatever adventure Nyquist encounters next.