228 pages, Kindle Edition
Review by Marc Nash
There's been a ten year hiatus since Jeff Noon's previous novel. And Noon, always on the cutting edge of the interface of literature and technology, seems to have been revivified by the digital revolution in literature (see his "Microspores" on his own blog), so that "Channel Skin" is available only on Kindle. And it is indeed a book about technologies, media, delivery systems and data flow. "We have flooded ourselves with the media in all its many forms. Our minds are now open to signals. We have become aerials".
The book is swathed in genius, wonderful linguistic and imagistic set-pieces, yet doesn't quite hold together in a satisfying whole. Its world is a media saturated one, where pop singing sensations are created by George Gold, a Simon Cowell figure, but have a very limited shelf-life and live hopelessly isolated lives to protect them from the public's insatiable demand to paw at them. But Gold himself has lost his flesh and blood daughter to the most popular reality show of the day, "The Pleasure Dome", a sort of Spandau Prison in which its sole prisoner alternates between shucking the toxic inheritance of her father and trying to reach out towards him, through the public prism of 24-hour TV surveillance. Every thought is broadcast and contestants rarely emerge with their sanity intact.
One of Gold's superannuated creations Nola Blue, develops a condition whereby her skin displays every televisual output as if it were a channel hopping screen itself. She develops an imagistic symbiosis with Gold's daughter Melissa. She shows her broadcasts from within "The Pleasure Dome", but she also channels her. There is a wonderful scene with the bereft George Gold when Nola alternates between herself and projecting the missing Melissa. But the strange thing is that although the novel ostensibly has Nola as its main character, Melissa is far more interesting, while Nola remains far more nebulous. Nola does much random travelling with no clear purpose in mind, which I found a bit frustrating. It seemed a part of the plotting that was underdeveloped.
But then Noon takes your breath away with the audacity of his creative and linguistic capabilities. "Words were written there (her forearm), blood words. They dripped red but could not be touched. George tried to: he put his fingers into the blood, feeling it to be dry, an image alone. It was the broadcast of a wound". Also the other two Noon novels I've read both have rather trite 'girl died/gone missing, search for that lost love' plots. I'm happy to report the two key relationships here are much fuller and more maturely handled; that of father-daughter with the Golds and also the Svengali to his acolyte with Gold and Nola. And then there's the fascinating relationship between Nola and Melissa who of course never meet in the flesh, yet resonate off one another's mental wavelengths.
Ultimately one's experience of the book will come down to the reader's expectations and demands for plot. Nola as I say wanders around to not much effect, except when she passes through interactions of interest. Then she almost fades out like the white dot on old televisions when you switched them off. The engrossment comes from the language, the imagery and the envisioning of our media saturated society. For me that was enticing enough, but it may not be to everyone's taste. For fans of "Videodrome", "The Illustrated Man", "Channel Skin" represents a twenty-first century updating of these visions, while it perhaps has most in common with the subplot of Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City" in which one half of a celebrity couple is stuck in outer space, being broadcast on a round the clock reality TV show as they creep towards inevitable death. On balance, I prefer the Lethem, but this is still definitely worth the read.