Nexus Book Group #6: Automated Alice – Jeff Noon

Posted on May 29, 2012


I’m dipping back in time slightly to cover the April and May meetings of the Nexus Book Group this week in anticipation of their reading of Best Manchester Poets on Tuesday evening.

April’s meeting saw a sidestep away to a enchanting modern day ‘trequel’ to Alice in Wonderland. Trying to retrieve her Great Aunt’s parrot from the inside of a grandfather clock, she becomes lost in 1998 Manchester. Alice soon becomes the prime suspect in the Jigsaw murders – and with Whipporwill the parrot always one step ahead, can she solve the murders, catch Whipporwill and be home in time for tea?

The group were unanimous in liking the book, in particular the style and tone feel natural and in keeping with Carroll’s Alice. However, the opinion of Noon’s execution of the story had more variable responses. The fairly abrupt and convenient ending was also felt to have been a missed opportunity given how developed earlier parts of the book were.

Certainly, this feels like a book of two halves. The pace of the book ramps up considerably in the second half, both as a result of Alice being on the run and the plot hurtling towards its conclusion. However, it felt like being on a Merry-Go-Round that had no intention of stopping. I don’t think Noon’s intention was to leave his readers dizzy somehow.

With respect to the group’s ongoing mission to define ‘Northerness’ through literature – whilst Automated Alice is most definitely set in Manchester by name, and in some areas style – one can picture the rushing commuters of Albert Square as half-man, half-animal quite easily – but ultimately, it isn’t a depiction of ‘our’ Manchester. This sideways version doesn’t fit in with traditional depictions of the north for the group.

The games carry on, instead of the chess seen in Through the Looking Glass, here the lost jigsaw pieces drive the story. Like Carroll, Noon has games with words as well. The shady Civil Serpents evoke reptilian imagery whilst the constant references to ‘wurms’ not only continue the insect theme developing but also toy around with the (then) contemporary cyberpunk themes of William Gibson et al. Perhaps it’s most successful mashup is within the steampunk genre – hissing clunking androids and machines roam across this landscape.

Ultimately, Automated Alice does not feel as successful as it ought to have to been. Neither a children’s book, or a adults, it sits in a uncomfortable middle ground. Whilst you cannot fault Noon’s inventiveness, the complexity of the novel and the ambigiuty of the message – even if there is actually a message – sadly makes this more flawed than fun on balance. Maybe it’s my lack of familiarly with Noon’s other work that causes Automated Alice to suffer – or maybe it’s just trying to be too clever and be too many things at once. It’s a shame because that are some great set pieces in here – but the sum of its parts is less than the wonder and satisfaction you will have got from Carroll’s works sadly.

The Fiction Stroker gives Automated Alice three strokes out of five: