Timelines of the Insane: A review of A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon

Time is defined.  We all know how long one second lasts, we know that sixty seconds equals a minute, sixty minutes make up an hour, twenty-four hours complete a day, and three hundred sixty-five days push us around the sun for one year.  The length of a year may be relative depending on your home planet, but the rest is static.  Agreed upon by all the word, this unification of time assures that all of humanity moves together.  History, commerce, war, communication; without an agreement on time, none of those are possible, at least as we know it.  Jeff Noon’s story may feature a private eye on an investigation, but it is primarily about what happens when time is not static.  When everyone has their own personal timeline.

A Man of Shadows mostly takes place in the twin cities of Dayzone and Nocturna.  The date is indeterminate as not even the characters can agree on the year.  Within these cities, in some country somewhere in the world, time does not work as we know it to work.  Dayzone is afflicted by perpetual day.  Illuminated by a million sources of light and heat, the denizens have a choice as to what timelines on which to live their lives.  Companies have their own designated times, as do local businesses, trains schedules, government offices.  There is one official timeline for the city, but almost no one seems to follow it.  The largest company in the city promises a unique timeline for every citizen.  Conversely, Nocturna is constant night.  A necessity when one can spend entire days in fake day.  The human body needs darkness for sleep, for rest.  But Nocturna also runs on its own set of timelines.  The ultimate result is a city that is never at rest, as one person’s midnight is another’s midday.

The people who choose to live this way are not sane.  Characters are constantly passing from one timeline to another, adjusting their watches and clocks as they go.  It is a need, an addiction for these people.  They simply cannot function without the consistent changing of time.  They may leave their home at eight o’clock in the morning, according to one timeline.  When they get to the train station, their clocks read ten to eight.  Adjustment.  Arriving at work, this person’s watch shows the time as eight thirty, but the office clocks say seven.  Adjustment.  After working an eight-hour shift, the citizen walks to a pub, which won’t serve them a beer until five.  Adjust the watch to five, show the bartender, and now they’ll serve you.  Leave at nine, but the citizen promised to return home by five.  Adjust the watch to five before you step in the door.  By this point, so many adjustments have been made this person has no idea how long they have been awake.  Hours, days, weeks?  Every single person who chooses to live in Dayzone or Nocturna goes through this constant changing of time.

At the center of all this is John Nyquist, private eye.  At first appearing to the hard-boiled detective of stereotypes, Nyquist quickly breaks the mold.  He drinks, like any investigator.  He gets into fights, winning some and losing more.  But the man is a coward.  He spends the majority of the story running from location to location, following leads, terrified of what is going to happen.  John Nyquist is not a brave man, he is not a strong man.  Any attempt to charm information out of someone ends with Nyquist sweating and quivering.  His condition only worsens throughout, until a sudden break near the end.  Nyquist is also a very unreliable narrator.  Aside from the fear, he has not slept for God knows how long.  Hallucinations abound as he tries to drink them away.  At a certain point, we also learn he has been a drug abuser for several years, something even the man forgets in his panicked life.  His further descent into madness, and his eventual escape, all start when he is hired to find a runaway.  Eleanor Bale, the daughter of the most powerful man in Dayzone.

Nyquist’s search for Eleanor takes a turn towards the supernatural when she slips from his grasp, leaving clues behind.  What little evidence is left points Nyquist to the border precinct known as Dusk.  A no man’s land sitting in between Dayzone and Nocturna, Dusk is perpetually covered in an unnatural fog.  Rumors and urban legends surround the area, and all characters seem to agree that Dusk is expanding, slowly but surely taking over portions of day and night.  Stories are told of bizarre sounds, ghosts, cults, and all other sorts of macabre existences.  Nyquist himself witnesses strange events in the Dusk.  He hears unexplainable sounds, sees men with shadows for faces, and learns of a serial killer with the ability to steal time and kill between moments.  For most of the novel, the reader is not sure whether these supernatural elements are real, or just the figments of a disturbed mind which has spent much too long under a false sun.

Of course, the supernatural is both real and stranger than Nyquist could imagine.  The fog of Dusk almost seems alive, swallowing people whole and turning them into it’s puppets.  The detective and the reader learn of a cult, led by Eleanor Bale’s own grandmother, which plots to aid Dusk and bring it into the material world by possessing a human body.  They possess the ability to manipulate time, to steal moments and memories from people and feed it to their dark messiah.  The exact mechanics of all this are fairly convoluted and under explained, but Nyquist is the point-of-view character here.  A coward, drawn towards the danger even as he does not understand it, John Nyquist is not meant to understand what is happening around him, and neither are we.

A Man of Shadows is not an easy book to read.  There is not a single character I can point to and call sane.  It is very easy to feel uncomfortable while reading the novel, and Jeff Noon’s prose does everything it can to reinforce that feeling.  Sentences trail off, thoughts are stated in the middle of a paragraph with no notion of who’s head we are looking into, and Nyquist relates disturbing visions to us.  Questions asked are left unanswered.  Yet, despite that, the novel does have somewhat of a happy ending.  Nyquist saves a life, and escapes the twin cities, leaving the multitude of timelines behind him.  Outside of the city, real time exists.  True time, unmolested by a million differing clocks.  For the first time in his life, Nyquist will see the sun rise.

A Man of Shadows can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold

Total read time: 14 days

Next on the list: Frankenstein Dreams, by Michael Sims

One thought on “Timelines of the Insane: A review of A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon

  1. Pingback: Betwixt and Between: A Review of Within Without, by Jeff Noon – City on the Moon

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