Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Automated Alice, by Jeff Noon

In the short novel, Automated Alice, we return to follow the famously dreamy young girl for a new and updated adventure.  In this one, Alice travels a hundred years through time (as literally as can be--the portal this time is an old grandfather clock in her aunt's house), where she brings her Victorian-style innocence through a series of abruptly shifted modern settings, puns, anthropormophosed creatures, and cute non-sequiturs.  It starts in a computermite mound, and immediately playing games with bit logic and uncertainty, the sort of effort that I simply must appove.  Noon lays the Lewis Carroll voice on pretty liberally from the outset, all the twee puns and wordplay, but then so of course did Lewis Carroll.  Noon ladels in gallons of late-century cultural references, but that's part and parcel with the original too.  It opens up the reader to the context of the original Alice, and what might pass for a modern equivalent, now with easy access to all the sorts of in-jokes for people who didn't have the fortune to read Through the Looking Glass at the time of its writing, and it's interesting to compare the role of technology, drugs, and violence in the cultural contexts as well.  He includes the author-as-character in there in a couple different ways, which I think was meant to be a sweet homage, and he wraps up with a warmly posed metafictional question of who is the real Alice (the character, the doll copy of her, or the real Ms. Liddell), to mirror the earlier question of who is the real writer (Lewis Carroll or Charles Dodgeson or, for that matter, Jeff Noon).  In all, it's really a fabulous idea.  Unfortunately, I hated this book.  A lot.

I hated it because it's inappropriately creepy.  Alice winds up before long in a murder mystery, and okay, maybe that part slides--is it really worse than winding up in the court of a maniacal dictator who is addicted to capital punishment?--but I don't think Lewis Carroll would have ever shown us all the bodies, even if he was writing in 1997.  I don't think Lewis Carroll would have dropped the girl down the corpse-hole into a festering pit of demonic snakes, or jammed chicken guts into a robot to make it work.  For real.  Nor, for that matter, do I think Carroll would have maryjaned himself egregiously into the middle of the story, for the evident purpose of complaining about critics.  What the fuck would possess the author to indulge in this kind of thing?

I was already familiar with Jeff Noon from his novel Vurt, which I read a few years ago, shortly before I started reviewing books on this site.  That one had a pretty high squick factor too, but there, at least, it fit its context, and for all that, I remember it as an interesting and thoughtful book, which is why I grabbed this one from the discount rack.  Oddly, I am writing this directly off a conversation of what writing does or doesn't reveal about the author.  I don't get the impression that Jeff Noon is a creepy guy, necessarily, but if he can't keep the gore and guts out of Alice, then I won't trust him to keep it out of anything.


David Marlow said...

Guess I'll cross this one off my Amazon wish list.

Gets me to thinking about Alice themes and variations. Heart of Darkness, The Matrix: Reloaded.

P.S. How's The Fatal Shore coming? [ducking]

Keifus said...

Oh started it, and liking it. In fact, I'm wicked impressed that for something written only 25 years ago, it can take such an objective and big-picture historical perspective. He's going on about the early roots of English criminal justice, how it was a brutal and lawless mess compared to continental life (and to modern life, and to basic morality), even after making the fair case for British-style freedom (mostly limited to the propertied wankers and their property, of course, but perhaps noteable for the somewhat-less-arbitrary-and-wonton application of justice among the in people).

The nuts didn't fall too far from the imperial tree on these shores either, as we know. I've read my share of political stuff in that vein, usually holding up English common law as something worth anything. And I can't think of anyone else that would handle it as succinctly and impartially. (An appeal to ignorance, but no, it all always seems to be celebrating American-ness.)

The book is also not boring.

(Man, I've been in a mood for quite awhile switters, and didn't want to take on anything too serious. Several other minor things to write up before I get so far as that.)

David Marlow said...

And it has pictures.

I've never been able to come up with a theory that explains how he's able to pull off smugness without being or sounding smug. The closest I've come is: Unimpeachable research? And I kind of love his tone.

We're close enough in age I think that I wonder if Australia has come of age pop culture-wise as we did. (I'm thinking Crocodile Dundee, of course. And Thornbirds, obviously.) And I know it was a Foster's ad campaign, but Australians seem (or used to seem) tougher than average. Like our grandparents. I don't know. PBS is replaying Dust Bowl this week, but I don't think I can go through that again. Outstanding, but heartbreaking, because we knew those people. All that has something to do with Fatal Shore somehow. Something like, "Oh those pansy-assed pilgrims had it easy compared to the British convicts," etc. And Outback Steaks.

Not to pry since it's none of my business, but your mood? I can say from here that since The Thaw I've felt like I've been shot out of, while not a cannon, at least a pellet gun.

Keifus said...

And somehow you're forgetting Yahoo Serious. Which really just makes everything more succinct. Maybe.

Yeah, digging holes is surprisingly good therapy.