The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, April 5, 1995               TAG: 9504050081
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   63 lines


FROM THE OPENING line of Jeff Noon's ``Vurt'' (Crown, 342 pp., $22), it appears that this first-time novelist has decided to go the cute route. There's an old Devo song titled ``Girl U Want.'' In Noon's vision of a future British subculture revolving around ``Vurt'' - drugs that combine elements of virtual reality, hallucinogenics and narcotics, and are ingested in feather form - a character leaves an emporium dubbed a Vurt-U-Want.

Fortunately, Noon, a musician, painter and playwright, does not spend the entire book showing off his command of cyberhipness. But nearly 150 pages pass before the smoke of supposed cleverness clears and the reader is able to achieve something as old-fashioned as caring about the characters, particularly first-person narrator Scribble.

Scribble is one of the Stash Riders, a roving gang of Vurt addicts. His mission is to find Desdemona, his sister and lover, who has disappeared in something like a Vurt-related accident. Some of Noon's best writing comes in the descriptions of tenderness shared by the two. Still, Scribble's search takes an awfully long time coming to fruition in this somewhat leisurely paced narrative.

Noon demonstrates a noir-like sensibility, but he doesn't always pull it off. It's hard to imagine Raymond Chandler, or Philip K. Dick, floating this line: ``Maybe I'm some kind of romantic fool, especially when the Manchester rain starts to fall in memory. . . . ''

Neither does Noon come off well in comparison with true cyberpunk prose masters (and obvious Noon role models) William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. He trips when writing of ``inphobeams'' that ``could match a face up to the Cop Banks in a half a nanosec.'' The Daffy-Duck-in-space cartoon, ``Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century,'' features more vividly imagined science-fiction devices than these half-baked flashlights, which also pale next to the hilarious ``Separated at Birth'' identification games the authorities play in Gibson's novel ``Virtual Light.''

It's also too bad that Noon seems to have learned so little about structure from the likes of Gibson, who's popular not only because he's cutting-edge, but because he's great at keeping so many balls in the air. Noon's plotting is too often unexcitingly simple, and when he does attempt complication, the result is frequently unconvincing. Why are yellow Vurt feathers ``the color of death''? We're never told.

There's real tragedy in the story's second half, but only those who have conscientiously waded through all of the posturing - and uninspired steals, from a wide field including William S. Burroughs, Anthony Burgess' ``A Clockwork Orange,'' rock critic Lester Bangs and the rap group Digital Underground - will find it. It may be telling that some of Noon's most subtly pleasing allusions are to '60s pop songs like ``Ferry Cross the Mersey'' (envisioned as an English national anthem-to-be) and ``The Way Young Lovers Do.'' Might he be a more effective fiction writer in a setting less willfully up-to-the-minute? Let's hope he gives himself, and us, the chance to find out. ILLUSTRATION: Photo

Jeff Noon's first novel, ``Vurt,'' revolves around a future British


by CNB