Automated Alice

By Richard Gehr
Published September 25, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Jeff Noon attempts something unusually daring in "Automated Alice," and he almost pulls it off. In his previous novels -- "Vurt" and "Pollen" -- Noon explored a near-future Manchester, England populated by tripped-out dogmen and robowomen who frolic dangerously on the boundaries of the "Vurt" realm, a dimension created by dreams, psychedelic drugs and storytelling. Here Noon imports Lewis Carroll's Alice into 1998 Manchester by way of a parrot that flies into a grandfather clock. She lands in the middle of a "computermite" mound and quickly becomes enmeshed in a dreamworld of distorted language and logic. This, depending upon your tolerance of whimsy, ranges from the merely precious ("It's all based on the beanery system.") to the slightly embarrassing (the minor characters include a "spiderboy" named Quentin Tarantula and the guitar-playing sculpture James Marshall Hentrails).

With the help of his own gritty, John Tenniel-inspired illustrations, Noon enfolds Carroll's universe within his own. Alice actually made a cameo appearance toward the end of "Pollen" as an example of endangered literary creations. Here she eludes evil "Civil Serpents" and "policedogmen" who've deemed her the prime suspect in a series of puzzling "Jigsaw Murders." Aiding Alice as she attempts to prove her innocence and return home from a land more like Blunderland than Wonderland are a cast of odd characters: the computerized twin of the title; the artist Pablo Ogden, who terms his style "Skewdism"; the quantum-based professor Gladys Chrowdingler, whose cat, as you may imagine, plays a large part in the proceedings; and the author himself, here called Zenith O'Clock. As expected, a terrifying snake lurks in the middle of Noon's garden of unearthly delights.

Noon's "Alice" update, while only slightly more anxiety-fraught than Carroll's edgy masterpieces, is immensely more self-conscious. By placing himself at the center of a Borgesian "librarinth," Noon both adds to and subtracts from his own mystique. While he has promised more adventures in the world of "Vurt," "Automated Alice" lacks "Vurt" and "Pollen's" disquieting slippage between reality and the domain of the Other. For Noon admirers, though, it will probably provide another essential piece in an increasingly interesting puzzle.

Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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