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Falling Out of Cars

by Jeff Noon

(Doubleday, £12.99, 345 pages, hardback, published 14 November 2002. Black Swan, £6.99, 381 pages, paperback, 3 November 2003.)

There's a saying that nothing is more cover scanboring than other people's dreams. In other words, when you meet me in the morning, please don't tell me what you dreamt last night. Why not? Why are other people's dreams so boring? Because, I think, they have no significance to anyone but the dreamer--but, to the dreamer, his own dreams have such intense, mysterious, miraculous significance that he tells them with a little quaver in his voice.

Jeff Noon's latest novel, Falling out of Cars, seems to be deliberately modelled on a dream. Like a dream, it contains significant shards of the dreamer's life. I don't know that much about Jeff Noon, but I know enough to recognise fragments of his dream: the seaside resort on England's south coast where he now lives; the obsession with Alice in Wonderland; the disdain for the SF novels that he read when he was a teenager. He quotes snippets of his favourite writers, and namechecks them. These frail details pop in and out of his dream, and probably have immense significance for the dreamer. However, they don't mean much to a reader.

I felt excluded from this novel, as if I was being deliberately misinformed, and shown only a tiny portion of a vast picture. This is a wonderful technique for a writer if he can somehow convince the reader that a large, complete picture does exist, and, by revealing hints and details, suggest the existence of a complete, self-contained imaginative world. When Jeff Noon does this, Falling out of Cars suddenly comes to life. However, these moments are few and far between.

The novel tells the story of a journey, although I'm not sure whether it begins or ends. A woman, Marlene Moore, is driving with two friends, companions or workmates. They pick up a hitchhiker whose sign reads "Wherever." They drive around England, searching for fragments of mirrors. Something has happened, although no-one seems to know what. The government is involved. In order to survive a mysterious disease, people take a drug called Lucy, also known as Lucidity.

Like a hitchhiker with a sign saying "Wherever" or a teenager whose answer to every question is "Whatever," the novel wanders around, helpless and vague, shrugging its shoulders at everything. The plot lacks any structure or development. Characters arrive, depart. Identities are vague and changeable. Nothing is certain. Nothing is real.

That's not to say that this book is boring. The prose is often fascinating and occasionally beautiful. Many of the images are memorable. Despite all the frustrations and irritations of reading a book which is deliberately vacant, there are many pleasures to be found in Falling out of Cars, but they are incidental pleasures.

By the end of the book, I was left with a feeling of frustration: I had the sense that an excellent writer had taken a wrong turning, misunderstanding his own talents, and thus misusing them. However, perhaps I just missed the point of this odd, elusive novel. If you like listening to other people's dreams, you'll probably love it.

Review by Josh Lacey.

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