Jeff Noon is joining us today to talk about his novel, Within Without: A Nyquist Mystery. Here’s the publisher’s description:
From true weird fiction visionary Jeff Noon comes the fourth book in this Philip K. Dick Award-nominated mystery series.
In the year 1960, private eye John Nyquist arrives in Delirium, a city of a million borders, to pursue his strangest case yet: tracking down the stolen sentient image of faded rock’n’roll star Vince Craven.
As Nyquist tracks Vince’s image through Delirium, crossing a series of ever-stranger and more surreal borderzones, he hears tantalising stories of a First Border, Omata, hidden within the depths of the city. But to find it, he’ll have to cross into the fractured minds of Delirium’s residents, and even into his own…
What’s Jeff’s favorite bit?
About a third of the way through Within Without, private eye John Nyquist wakes up to find himself trapped in a sealed room, a room with no lights. He doesn’t know why he’s there. He has no way of knowing how much time as passed, since his arrival. He starts to hear a voice in his head. At first he thinks he might be going crazy, but the voice is real, it belongs to another person, a man. This man is living inside Nyquist’s head, and is speaking to him through a hole in a wall, a wall that runs down the centre of Nyquist’s skull. This man, I decided, was Gregor Samsa.
Samsa is the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel of 1915, The Metamorphosis. It’s a book I’ve read a few times in my life, from my youth onwards. It details the transformation of Samsa, a lowly travelling salesman, into a beetle. A man-sized beetle. This transformation happens suddenly, when, after a night of troubled dreams, Samsa wakes up to find he now has six legs, and a pair of antennae, and a belly made of hard intersecting plates. So I took this character, and I put him inside my hero’s head. Really, truly, I didn’t know where this would lead…
But I was very excited by the conversation that followed. Nyquist and Samsa talk to each other like very old friends, who have never actually met until this moment. They have fun, they ask questions of each other, they are puzzled by their current predicament. It’s a scene of mutual self-discovery. Samsa asks a riddle of Nyquist: “How many spots does Lady Bridlington’s ladybird have?” Now, that surprised me. Where was I going with this? In fact, as I found out later, Lady Bridlington’s ladybird plays a very important role in the narrative. Just to make the riddle more difficult, all the ladybirds in Within Without (and there are lots of them!) are asymmetrical in nature: they have a different number of spots on their two wing cases – three and four, two and five, and so on. Of course, Nyquist gets the answer wrong, to begin with, for the simple reason that I didn’t know how many spots the ladybird had! I write without planning, writing to discover what happens next, only thinking one chapter ahead at any one time. I leave clues for myself, for future consideration. So the riddle’s answer lay ahead of me: a mystery to be solved.
I really enjoyed writing this conversation with the man-beetle. It has a playful tone; I imagined Kafka working with Lewis Carroll, to produce a collaborative story, myself jotting down notes as I listened in. And each time I read a new draft of the manuscript, this particular chapter always brought a little smile to my face. But there’s a darker side to the episode: Samsa is in his human form at the moment. He tells Nyquist that every so often he changes into an insect, and then back again, into a man. But he knows that another metamorphosis is fast approaching. This terrifies Nyquist, as he continues on his journey, away from the locked room: knowing that very soon he might have a living beetle inside his head, affecting his behaviour in ways he cannot imagine. In contrast, it excited me greatly, as a writer, knowing that before the novel was done, I would have to describe this exquisitely painful, frightening, bizarre moment, when the beetle comes alive and starts to tap out messages with its feelers, on the skull’s curved interior.
JEFF NOON is an award-winning British novelist, short story writer and playwright. He won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Vurt, the John W Campbell award for Best New Writer, a Tinniswood Award for innovation in radio drama and the Mobil prize for playwriting. He was trained in the visual arts, and was musically active on the punk scene before starting to write plays for the theatre. His work spans SF and fantasy genres, exploring the ever-changing borderzone between genre fiction and the avant-garde.