Cobralingus
Jeff Noon (Codex Books)

"Writers are still, with some honourable exceptions, using storytelling techniques invented in the 19th century," says linguistic provocateur and self-described post-futurist, Jeff Noon. "We need to expand the notion of what a story is, and to seek out new ways of telling these stories. We need to be brave in this, as writers, as critics, and as readers."

Noon's experimental collection, Cobralingus, takes up Noon's own Scrabble-rousing gauntlet, complete with website (www.cobralingus.com) and instructions: "The Cobralingus Engine allows the user to manipulate language into new shapes and new meanings. The device takes an INLET text as a starting point, which is then processed to create another text entirely, known as the OUTLET." This Engine business sounds pretty boss, but alas!, there's no actual device, no software program, no electronic hardware, just Noon's literary approximation of musical sampling.

Inspired by dub reggae, electronic dance music, and computers as creative tools, Noon developed what he calls "metamorphiction," wherein "The final mix of a [literary work] becomes the starting point for experimentation." Noon samples his inlet texts from various sources, including Emily Dickinson, Thomas De Quincey, and Ecclesiastes. The metamorphictionalization of inlets to outlets is achieved through filter gates, which can be constructive (ENHANCE, PURIFY) or destructive (DECAY, EXPLODE). Topping each page are diagrams of the filter gates Noon has used upon each interim text.

While inventing new linguistic structures through the transmutation of other art forms is a ballsy endeavor, such invention ain't as fresh as Noon would have us believe. Gertrude Stein's exposure to Cèzanne, the avant-garde, and those visual concepts that bewitch all painters had a profound effect on her writing. e.e. cummings, ditto. Furthermore, only three of Noon's selected inlets are from the 20th century. Most precede the 19th. And despite Noon's call for new ways to tell stories, Cobralingus' outlets often have an olde-fashioned ring.

The most ambitious piece, Exploding Horse Generator Unit, a remix of Shakespeare injected with Zane Grey, results in an elongated pseudo-sonnet, composed in everyone's favorite accentual-syllabic versification, ambic pentameter: from TANgled THREADS this BOOK of NIGHT enTWINES/ all STARS so BLACK that BROken LETters MAKE (emphases mine).

In these ways, Noon betrays himself to be an antiquarian, or an archaeologist, despite the pretense of employing a snazzy, impersonal engine of deconstruction. In itself, archaeology isn't objectionable, but it does raise questions as to whether Noon believes the reader hasn't done his or her homework, or worse, that Noon hasn't done his. But this is merely to dispute all the lathered blather. If Noon allows the work to speak for itself, without manifesto (see www.jeffnoon.com), presumption or artifice, he comes off more successfully.

Passages and pieces of Cobralingus work gloriously upon the ear and tongue, intravenous titillation for the word-junkie. Noon introduces us to far-flung vocabularies: horseracing lingo, the communications alphabet, Latin nomenclature for the moon, jocular 16th century term and stutterer's nightmare, honorificabilitudinitatibus. The outlet for Boa Conscriptor Breeding System is one to be read out loud, as tasty and melodic as it is menacing.

You want poignancy? You got it in Dubchester Kissing Machine, wherein a girl disappears from a nightclub and through each filtration of the text becomes proceedingly more forgotten, until we wonder if she'd ever existed. Contrivance and hokiness aside, Cobralingus is an admirably mussy tussling with the English language. Like most artists who are passionate about their work, Noon's jones isn't for money, fame, or movie contracts. He wants bigger things, in particular, for the reader to do some work: to focus, to muse, to savor the marrow of each word, in effect, to read.