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
The novel’s most significant achievement, however, is to present a
cogent narrative that emerges from the chaos of its shattered
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
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
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
Whether it be ghostly occurrences, discreet espionage or unspoken
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.
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,
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
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.