We’ve all dreamed of being a character in our favorite stories—who wouldn’t want the chance to experience a life filled with adventure, danger, and impossibilities like magic and time travel, with the added bonus of knowing it’s only a story, and that we are never at real risk?
In Jeff Noon’s gonzo new detective novel The Body Library, it turns out being inside of—and indeed, controlled by—a story might be the worst of all possible fates. As erstwhile private detective John Nyquist muddles through clues and fights against the mysterious powers trying to keep him in trapped within a constructed narrative, Noon unfolds a horrifying scenario in which stories take on a life of their own, and will stop at nothing to be told. Yet this meta-fictional existential nightmare also plants its tongue firmly in cheek, balancing bizarro atmosphere with winking homages to classic detective novels and tropes. It’s a moody, grimy, ruthlessly funny read.
After leaving the night-and-day city of his birth in A Man of Shadows, Nyquist comes to a new city, this one governed by words and stories. He hangs out a shingle as a P.I. while writing his autobiography and bantering with the locals. His life is uneventful, but stable. But a high-profile case goes sideways when the man he’s tailing turns feral and attacks. Nyquist regains consciousness in a room occupied by a dead body, and finds himself pursued by sinister figures. As Nyquist investigates the scattered trail of clues, it’s clear someone’s trying to fit him into a story of their own devising, a tale centered on a mysterious book called The Body Library, and a strange plague that leaves its victims covered in squirming words. Is Nyquist truly working to solve a mystery, or is he just another pawn in someone else’s grander story?
There are countless novels about people finding themselves characters in a story, but Noon’s aggressive spin on the setup reframes the idea. Nyquist isn’t just thrown into the story, but brutally kidnapped and forced to serve its whims—a story packed with weird allusions to Shakespear and a creepy child who bears a striking resemblance to Danny from The Shining. The familiar noir and mystery beats quickly turn as malicious as the villains putting the damsel in distress, as Nyquist’s memory is wiped in order to force him to follow a trail of clues in search of The Body Library and seek an end to the story that serves its own mysterious needs. It’s insidious and ingenious, to cast the narrative itself as the primary antagonist.
The central conceit serves to build the atmosphere and world design, too: the city is literally infested with stories, from the neighborhoods named for famous authors, to the word plague that stalks its streets and forces Nyquist to act out its will, to the strange letter beetles that congregate on the outskirts. The biggest crimes in the novel similarly revolve around stories: at one point, Nyquist is brutally arrested for daring to hide stories from the city authorities. Noon walks a fine line between playing with tropes and going for broke and the surreal, but this is still a book weird enough to satisfy those who want something truly bizarre (a.k.a., Jeff Noon fans).
While this quasi-sequel may not deliver the kaleidoscope of weirdness that accompanied Noon’s Angry Robot debut, its sense of play and sly manipulation of reader expectations—about metafiction, weird fiction, and noir—is still quite the trip.