Stranded in the Jungle--12


FEATHER. "Shards of glass under my feet, the colors of dreams. In Bottletown, even our tears flicker like jewels." Jeff Noon's 1993 novel Vurt finds beauty in unlikely places. Bottletown is a ruined slum. Only outcasts live there. Everyone else uses it as a garbage dump. The streets are overflowing with "crystal sharp segments of smashed up wine bottles, and beer bottles, and gin bottles." With every step you take, glass cuts your feet and you "sink into a bed of pain." But in the sheen of all that glass, loveliness is born. "The whole of Bottletown shone and glittered like a broken mirror of the brightest star," the narrator Scribble recalls. "Such is beauty, in the midst of the city of tears." This dazzling light transfigures the cruel reality of post-Thatcher Britain. Bottletown grows "shard by shard, jag by jag, until the whole place is some kind of glitter palace, sharp and painful to the touch." Such is the beauty that blossoms in the heart of agony. It's the one thing people can cling to, when they have nothing else. Beauty shimmers on the surface of things, in tiny nuances and fleeting details. The novel is filled with such details: rainbow colors, pungent odors, sensuous textures, and piercing sounds. But Scribble knows that, for the most part, "the real world is not beautiful." If you want beauty, you must turn to the fantasy world of the Vurt. Vurt is many things in the course of the book. It's a potent psychedelic drug, like Ecstasy but even better. It's a kind of collective dreaming. It's virtual reality, like being inside a movie or a video game. It's a universal compendium of myths and stories. It's an alien mode of being, at odds with our own. But first of all, Vurt is a beautiful feather. It comes in six colors: blue, black, pink, cream, silver, and yellow. It works like this. You push the feather deep into your mouth. You let it caress the very back of your throat. All at once, you are transported to another world. You live out a fantasy as if it were real. You enter someone else's dream, and think it is your own. Everything you see or do is glazed with beauty. You can have whatever sort of experience you like. There are feathers of action and adventure, feathers of repose and consolation, even pornographic feathers. But a feather gets used up after a while. The game is over. You return to everyday life. For most people, that's it. Vurt is just an idle entertainment. But Scribble can't dismiss it so easily. He has been bitten by a dreamsnake, and the juice of Vurt now runs in his veins. Scribble is a dreamer and not a doer. He prefers the faintest glimmer of beauty to the boring solidity of the real. His fate is sealed when he sacrifices himself for Desdemona. She is his sister and his lover, the only person he has ever loved. She gets separated from him, stranded in the Vurt. His search for her takes up most of the book. Finally he rescues her and sends her home, but remains in the Vurt in her place. He redeems her, at the price of losing her forever. He chooses to hold on to her image, rather than retain her living, breathing self. That's how it is with beauty. It is only for those who give up everything for it. Beauty accords you nothing, aside from itself. And in return for that nothing, it demands the whole world. You must pay for beauty in the coin of the real. The aesthete knows better than anyone else that nothing is free from loss. Nothing is whole. Nothing is pure. Purity is the emptiest mode of being. "Pure is poor," say the mocking graffiti in Bottletown. Purity, like innocence, is there only to be lost. In Vurt, all identities are scrambled and recast. It's like the way genes are recombined, or musical recordings remixed. There are those who, like Scribble, are part human and part Vurt. There are others who are part dog, or part robot, or yet stranger things. Even those who think they are pure get transmuted, sooner or later. The purpose of sex is not reproduction, but miscegenation. The joy of transformation is the greatest of all joys. It's the other face of beauty, coextensive with pain and loss. It flares gloriously just for an instant, and then it is gone. You can see it when Scribble's friend Beetle dies from a "fractal virus." As the virus eats his body alive, it lights him up like a rainbow. He literally goes out in a blaze of glory: "The Beetle was naked. His body was a blaze of shapes, ever-changing. Beetle was no longer flesh. The fractals had taken possession, moving in swirls and arabesques through every part of him. He was the Shining Man, the walking firework."

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