Betwixt and Between: A Review of Within Without, by Jeff Noon

The crossing of a border is a sacred act, a transgression representing a metamorphosis from one state to another.  To most, borders represent the barriers between nations, or states, the crossing between one civilization and another.  But there are many more borders in our everyday lives.  The crossing of the threshold from within your home to without it.  The crossing from a street to inside an apartment building to inside a singular apartment, and in reverse.  But most borders are not physical objects, until we bring them into being.  Without a human mind, there are no borders anywhere.  One world stretches and encompasses everything.  It is us who gives borders their significance and power.  Borders are not just for people either, but ideas.  There are borders of the mind that welcome you across, and borders that bar your entry.  Thoughts come to us unbidden across closed borders, but so too much mental borders be crossed in order to grow and learn.

Thank you to Angry Robot for supplying my eBook review copy of Jeff Noon’s latest entry into the Nyquist Mysteries, Within WithoutWithin Without will be available in both eBook and in print on May 11th, 2021.

Within Without is the fourth and latest entry in the trippy and metaphysical series that is Jeff Noon’s Nyquist Mysteries.  Beginning in 2017 with A Man of Shadows, which first introduced us to John Nyquist, a private detective working in the twin cities of Dayzone and Nocturna, this series has proven to a unique blend of detective fiction, horror, psychological thriller, and metaphysical explorations.  This can sometimes be a difficult series to write about without spoiling too much as the books require your full, undivided attention to read.  But the novels have always been worth your attention, and Within Without continues this trend.  Where the last novel in the series, Creeping Jenny, felt a little more anchored to the physical realm, Within Without remains firmly interested in the metaphysical, the literary, and the imaginary.  This is more reminiscent of the second book, The Body Library, in many ways, although the John Nyquist that we meet here has grown tremendously since he first ventured past the borders of Dayzone and into Storyville and Hoxley-on-the-Hale.

Within Without, the fourth novel in the Nyquist Mysteries series, by Jeff Noon

John Nyquist is our returning protagonist but, for the first time in the series, he is not alone.  Teddy Fairclough, first introduced in the previous novel, joins Nyquist as his friend and employee, training to become a private detective under the very experienced P.I.  Nyquist as a character has grown over the course of the series, albeit in small ways.  Since the beginning, there has always been a question as to his mental stability in the face of the strangeness he repeatedly encounters, but Teddy’s presence in the story changes the dynamic dramatically.  Teddy is young and eager to prove himself, both to Nyquist and to the world, and their friendship provides the backbone of the entire novel.  While there is a central mystery, with a tremendous volume of twists and turns, Noon never looses sight of what is important here; the relationship between Nyquist and Teddy.  Having a companion means that Nyquist cannot afford to just be taken along for the ride.  He needs to claim some agency and always keep his eye on is truly important to him.  Without trying to spoil too much, while Nyquist is our point-of-view character, the story revolves around Teddy, caught in his newfound orbit.

Like the previous novels in the Nyquist Mysteries, Noon has introduced us to a new city with its own reality and strange set of rules.  Appropriately called Delirium, this new locale is one Nyquist fully admits to avoiding due to the strangeness of the place which, considering the previous cities he has explored, is really saying something.  Like Noon’s previous three cities, what sets Delirium apart from real-world cities is its all-encompassing obsession with one facet; borders.  This is a city full to the border with borders.  There is the main border to enter the city from the train station, defined by its cultish worship of waiting in queue, followed by multitudes of borders throughout the city proper.  Just traveling to his client’s house forces Nyquist to cross through so many borders that Noon does not even list them all.  Some borders are physical—a picket fence, a row of houses, a line of people holding hands—while others appear to exist purely in the mind of the gatekeeper, who takes your toll or password.  For each border has its own toll, password, or ritual required to cross.  And, while the borders do appear to have their own powers, they are still managed by people, and people can be bribed with the right bribe.  Early on in the story, a character warns Nyquist that crossing so many borders can and will affect the crosser, but it can be difficult to picture how exactly that would happen.  But, as we all know, something changes when you cross a border, physical or not.  Parts of you are left behind, and you may gain something new in the crossing.  The borders in Delirium are stronger than most, but their true nature and power is not revealed until later in the book.  For this would not be a Nyquist Mysteries novel without a few twists.

Nyquist and Teddy have been asked to Delirium by Vince Craven, their latest client and a famous rock star and actor.  While Nyquist is only familiar with his work in a passing sense, Teddy is a fan.  Craven has been convinced by his agent to hire the private detective to solve a missing person’s case.  Or a theft.  How you define the crime is up to your perception at first, as Vince Craven has lost his image.  In the world of Within Without, this refers to a sort of metaphysical persona that is attached to a person by a skilled enchanter.  The exact process, or what the images exactly are, are not discovered until later in the story, but Craven’s most recent image, called Oberon, has gone missing.  These are not just purely mental or imaginary constructs either.  The image is a thing that is visible to the naked eye, a layer of light and art enshrouding a person.  Only existing in Delirium, images maximize their wearer’s charisma and bring their artistic talents out fully.  Without Oberon, Craven is living up to his name, wasting away due to alcohol and more.  Of course, there is more than meets the eye with this latest mystery.  While the characters are seemingly familiar with the images and their function, there is so much more to the story, like all good things.  Nyquist and Teddy’s search for Oberon leads them all over Delirium, and beyond, crossing an infinite number of borders and meeting characters who straddle the line between the physical and metaphysical on a daily basis.

Avoiding too many spoilers when writing about the Nyquist Mysteries novels can be an arduous task due to the sheer density of these novels, but it is well worth the endeavor.  Noon’s novels are best enjoyed when you know the bare minimum of the plot and developments diving in.  But these books, Within Without included, are not for the faint of heart or the inattentive.  They are dense, in the best of ways.  Skip a paragraph and the rest of the book may be difficult to understand.  Every page, every paragraph, every sentence is important to the overall story.  Whenever you finally wrap your head around one of the concepts Noon has introduced to craft his plot, he introduces something else or throws in a twist that you never saw coming.  This is not meant as a criticism, however, but a positive aspect of his writing.  For many authors, losing readers due to such a density is very much a worry.  But Noon’s writing is so lush and engaging that you cannot help but pay attention.  If literature were a border, Noon’s welcomes you across with open arms, even as it demands you open your senses completely while visiting.

With Within Without, Noon has proved once again that his imagination knows no bounds. While previous novels showed how strong his imagination is, this cannot be an easy series to continue.  Each successive setting and plot in intricate in ways many other authors can only dream of.  Maybe that is why that this novel ends in such a way that Noon could stop the series here if he wanted, although that can be said about the previous novel, Creeping Jenny, as well.  However, Noon has also left enough threads to pick apart in a fifth book and, if Nyquist story continues, Noon has prepared to take us into the farthest reaches of the mind to a place even our imaginations have trouble grasping.  The next book, if there is one, may prove to the most challenging and experimental of the series. 

Within Without can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: Spellmaker, by Charlie N. Holmberg

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