Jeff Noon has always been one for assembling hallucinatory images into vibrant worlds, and is his latest, the surrealist sci-fi noir A Man of Shadows, he’s created perhaps his most vivid setting yet—a city as disorienting as anything you’d encounter in a lucid dream. In fact, with a plot that hides clues to its solutions early on but retains its mysteries until the very end, an oppressively odd atmosphere that never once overpowers the narrative, and an urban landscape that harbors secrets far beyond those the story reveals, this is a book that will give you a week’s worth of strange dreams.
In an unnamed city’s region of Dayzone, drenched in the eternal light of a million lamps, private eye John Nyquist tracks a young woman. It’s should be a simple job: find the daughter of a wealthy executive, bring her back home, collect the payoff for a job well done. That’s before Eleanor makes a run for the eternally dark region of Nocturna, with Nyquist hot on her heels. Soon, the investigator finds himself menaced by toughs in masks made of shadow, dosed with a mysterious hallucinogen, and falling out of sync with time itself. What does all of this have to do with Eleanor? What’s the connection to the invisible serial murderer stalking the city? The answers lie in the shadowy region of Dusk, a place from which no one has ever returned. If Nyquist ever wishes to solve the case, he will have to brave Dusk himself.
Style has always been Noon’s strongest suit, and in creating the varied cityscapes of A Man of Shadows, his talent for hallucinatory imagery has found a perfect match. This book is absolutely drenched in arresting visuals. Each of the city’s three boroughs has its own aesthetic: Dayzone is a bright, deco-diesel daymare awash in neon and covered in lightbulbs; Nocturna is a cold, dark noir dreamscape; and the shadowy, expressionist Dusk is a place enshrouded by fog and inhabited by workers who cry black tears as they are manipulated against their will by…something. Curiouser and curiouser still: the city also exists in multiple time zones, since eternal daylight and eternal night aren’t really conducive to a regular clock.
Noon works the visuals into the substance of the plot. The possibility of the lights in Dayzone going out, messing with the flow of time; numerous characters with odd connections to Dusk; Nyquist’s neuroses, a product of the city’s bizarre rules of chronology. Time slippage across the city is rumored to have the potential to cause a “time crash,” and some citizens suffer from a disease called “chronostasis,” in which they suffering a horrifying misfortune and become literally stuck in that singular moment of time. Even the central mystery revolves around the intersection of weird geography and illogical chronology—both Eleanor and her father have methods of manipulating time and ties to the darker corners of the city.
Crossing multiple timelines and traversing the disparate zones the city, Nyquist tracks down many of the clues he’ll need to solve the case fairly early on, but it is up to him to figure out where each one fits—and whether in Dayzone, Nocturna, or Dusk, that’s easier said than done. The clues often hint at multiple meanings, leading Nyquist, in classic noir fashion, into numerous close calls and narrow escapes. As he fights a constant memory fog, sometimes the detective will even forget a clue until it becomes significant, creating unsettling moments where we know Nyquist is walking into a trap, but he has no idea—yet.
A Man of Shadows might not be the most straightforward book from Noon (to say the least), its blend of style and substance make it stand out, and worth puzzling through. It’s a vibrant, bizarre trip through the dark corners of the brain, ever so slightly out of the light.