In the last years of his life, Lewis Carroll wrote a third Alice book. This mysterious work was never published and has only recently been discovered. Now, at last, the world can read of Automated Alice and her fabulous adventures in the future.
That’s not quite true. Automated Alice was in reality written by Zenith O’Clock, the writer of wrongs, who sends Alice through time, tumbling from the Victorian age to land in Manchester at the end of the Twentieth century.
Oh dear, that’s not right at all. Zenith O’Clock is only a character invented by Jeff Noon, who really wrote this trequel to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What Alice encounters in the automated future is mostly accidental too… a series of skewed misadventures, even weirder than your dreams.
Rarely has the blurb of a book so perfectly captured the spirit of it. Automated Alice, in some ways, barely needs a review after that braintwister of a blurb. But we’re here now, so let’s have one anyway.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are famous for concealing all number of brilliant mathematical logic puzzles in their whimsy. Jeff Noon’s Alice book similarly plays with puzzles, using them as a thematic motif in its jigsaw pieces and in logic or word puzzles threaded through the book. These make the novel feel very true to the originals, especially when combined with a writing style that really does sit very similarly to the Caroll novels; this playful book is explicitly in conversation with the reader, and with itself, acknowledging its own narratorial nature, and using it. As a construct it’s brilliantly done and the metafictional commentary on the fiction is well carried off in fascinating, skillful ways.
Automated Alice has a massive cast, aside from Alice, most notably Celia, Alice’s twin twister. Celia allows Noon to play around with the idea of reality; Celia is automatic, but Alice is both real and fictional – and these categories are ones Noon plays with extensively, as well as categories of idea and others. That playfulness extends into the character; Noon lives in a world ripe for whimsy, it seems, with the Civil Serpents, Inspector Jack Russell, and poets worse than McGonagall. All of these fit into the strange, sideways look at the world that Automated Alice wholeheartedly embraces as its own, a mingling of puns, fancies, and reinterpretations that really pack all kinds of ideas into a short book.
The plot is even more absurd, and indeed more absurd than Carroll’s Alice books. That most modern genre, the crime fiction novel, is perhaps the closest plot equivalent to Automated Alice, although the caper novel and conspiracy thrillers also have their place in the DNA of this trequel; each contributes something to Noon’s extraordinary, chaotic plot that blurs the lines between linearity and nonlinearity, between absurdism and simple fantasy. It’s a messy, busy, at times nonsensical plot that fits perfectly with the novel’s content and ideas, a heady blend of the strange and the familiar into something utterly new.
Automated Alice is a chaotic hot mess; Noon’s trequel ought to not work, ought to completely fall apart… but it doesn’t, instead working beautifully. Truly stunning.