The Three Nohzone Novels

Review by Cameron Lindo

 

Reading “Terrorism Considered As One Of The Fine Arts”, the first part of the “Nohzone Trilogy”, by Peter Whitehead, is like slipping on a cosy pair of slippers, or climbing into a hot bath. Its hero, Michael Schlieman, an academic drafted into MI5 whilst at Cambridge, loves the Lakeland poets, malt whisky, pretty young girls and a bit of noir. He has a helpless everyman quality which is endearing, but only to the point where familiar references hold sway. But this is Peter Whitehead, and familiar references are the first things up against the wall.
Schlieman has gone AWOL in the Lakes, and his story is pieced together by a narrator who searches for him at first in the Lake District itself, then in carefully annotated second hand books, then in laboriously decoded web addresses and finally in the reaches of his own psyche. A tale of intrigue involving eco terrorism and the sale of nuclear material ensues. We learn about him through his associations with a pair of Femmes Fatale (who may or may not be aspects of his own anima), through his painstaking self-immolation in myriad concealed hypertexts and from rumours divulged by his estranged MI5 handlers. The cosy hot chocolate-ness rapidly takes on a wormwood bitterness.
Widescreen atmospheric inserts give us heady glimpses of Egyptian brothels, homely snapshots of the slightly depressing provincial lecture circuit, and nouvelle vague memories from Paris in the late sixties, all cranked up with a dose of laboratory strength laudanum.
Whitehead makes use of copious literary quotations, from De Quincey to Kawabata to Kotzwinkle to Coleridge. These serve ostensibly as a frame of reference, but become inevitably a springboard into the void, a void into which all his characters, and indeed ourselves, seem to be headed.
A central theme is that of the palimpsest, a text written over other erased texts, and here Whitehead has not only written over the erased remains of all his other novels, but also succeeds in interweaving the events in his characters’ lives to such an extent that the reader experiences a vertiginous feeling of déjà vu, a warp in consensus reality.
The novel’s most significant achievement, however, is to present a cogent narrative that emerges from the chaos of its shattered compositional style.
Each thread is a link in a vast interconnected labyrinth of allusions, a Qabbalistic raft of elision, a glittering panoply of synaptic flashes multiplying and self fertilizing, rather like neural pathways in the human brain, out of which emerges a new mindset. One cannot divorce oneself from complicity in this process, and in fact the fourth novel in the trilogy, “ And Death Shall Have No Domain Name” may or may not manifest solely in the mind of the reader.
Michael Schlieman straddles this web like Adam Kadmon, the archetypal man, the great within the small, He represents an opium- drenched messiah who not only drags Eros and Thanatos in his slipstream, but heralds the new google consciousness beloved of information technology evangelists.

In Nature’s Child, part two of Peter Whitehead’s Nohzone trilogy, we find ourselves becalmed in a pastoral lacuna. From the opening quote by Coleridge and references to the climactic anomalies of El Nino, to the conclusion with its clear parallels in shamanic transformation, we have Nature as transcendent force, mystical and physical in equal measure.
Whitehead gives us Nature besieged, in the overt story of eco-terrorism, which serves as the exoskeleton of the tale. Beautiful and idealistic young people bent on the assassination of corrupt and double-dealing French businessmen coupled with revenge on murdered activists (think Rainbow Warrior). The possibility of eco-disaster as an anarchistic lesson in political chicanery.
Central to the novel, and indeed to the entire trilogy, is Maria, and Nature’s child is specifically Maria’s story. Like Nature, however, nothing here is straightforward, and while Maria would seem to be a chimera, in that she is a shattered glass reflecting myriad different elements, she is also, like Nature, a quantum polymorph whose life encapsulates millions of alternate potentials which happen to be crystallised into one particular narrative by Michael Schlieman.
Those of us who are easily distracted should take comfort, however, in the gripping style of Schlieman and Maria’s encounter. We are quickly enmeshed in a quagmire of spy thriller thrust and counter thrust, whereby everything we think we know is rapidly eroded, and gradually the artifice of surety is deconstructed until nothing is true (and probably everything is permitted).
Reassuringly we are soon in familiar Whitehead territory, as the protagonists engage loins and the real action begins. An intense psychodrama ensues, in which the struggle for dominion over mind is
engrossing and deeply erotic.

In Girl On A Train, Peter Whitehead resolves some of the thematic strands which have entwined, in ophidian fashion, around the central pillar of the caduceus that is Nohzone.
Taking as a template Kawabata’s “Snow Country” and the notion of plagiarism; of novels, of lives, of the curlicues of existence; he revisits his old stomping grounds- academia, spies, sex, the esoteric. Milton Schlieman travels to Japan for a Kawabata conference, encounters a mixed race courtesan on a train, then becomes involved with a pretty translator, who turns out to be more than just a cunning linguist.
The novel pivots on a sex-magickal ritual in which the ghost of Kawabata is evoked.
As with all of Whitehead’s novels the occult perpetually hovers at the periphery of the
narrative, waiting to warp events whenever the parameters of reality are weakened.
Whether it be ghostly occurrences, discreet espionage or unspoken emotional agendas,
the hidden constantly strives to be revealed. Here, revelation is held up to us like a trophy head, then snatched back, leaving perhaps a greater awareness of just how precarious the truth is.

At the culmination of Girl On A Train we discover the Girl’s (Yoko’s), letter to Schlieman, where a story of two sisters’ lives unfolds. In it we have a tale of sibling devotion and a hitherto unexpectedly frank expurgation of events. This narrative, coming as the denouement of so many twists, turns, false alleys and blurred memories, is shocking in its candour, as well as profoundly moving. One cannot help striving for explanations, tying up loose ends, correlating the miasma of half lives, chimeras, ghosts.
The final nail in this sarcophagus is both disorienting and hugely audacious, as our presumptions are turned on their heads yet again. The facts themselves are too pivotal to expose here, suffice to say we question novelistic logic and simultaneously our own precarious foothold on reality.
To simply recount the events of a Peter Whitehead novel is always to reduce it’s epic nature to the level of the prosaic. His writing is literature as total immersion, and his world is one where writing and magic are co-conspirators.

Peter Whitehead has always stood at the brink of cultural change, documenting and shaping significant resonances long before their delineations have been absorbed into the mainstream. With the Nohzone Trilogy, he anticipates a truly interactive new breed of novel.


Prepare to have your mind messed with.

 

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