I read Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was eager to read his previous novel, The Gone-Away World. It is a rambunctious novel that begins with some not-fully-explained disaster which our narrator/protagonist (along with his ragtag band of unruly-but-skilled compatriots) has been recruited to fix. In short, they’re being asked to save the world. And then, just when you think the action is about to start, the book cuts away to a flashback.
I have not had the occasion to hear Harkaway speak, but if he talks the way he writes then I imagine conversation with him must be exhausting. His parenthetical clauses have asides, which then have tangents. But pay attention — he’ll eventually make his way back around to the subject at hand and if you’ve been so immersed in the digression that you think it has replaced the topic of conversation, you’ll find yourself sorely mistaken.
There is a scene in which our protagonist, after a string of run-arounds from various potential employers, finally arrives at his last chance for gainful employment, one Mr. Crispin Hoare in the Office of Procurement. Hoare takes him to visit a man named Pont to engage in a bit of “Socratic sort of dialogue, culminating perhaps in a brief excursus.” What follows is a couple pages of philosophical back-and-forth about the nature of government and war (which is actually fairly interesting and may be an accurate assessment of our own government’s approach to war) — at which point it emerges that Hoare was just using Pont to elicit a definition of a term for our hapless hero.
And this is the nature of Harkaway’s writing: he will never take the shortcut when there is a long, meandering way to arrive at the same destination, preferably one that involves ninjas and Tupperware and lots of garrulous characters who talk the way he writes, and a few who don’t talk at all. But you won’t really mind because, after all, some travels are more about the journey than the destination, and The Gone-Away World is one fantastic trip.
So, back to that flashback, then. We start to learn more about where our main characters came from, particularly Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend, inseparable since they were very young, attending college together and fighting together in the Go Away War, and finally both recruited for this world-saving assignment. But where I was expecting to find a brief recap before moving on to save the world, I got about 320 pages of backstory — a novel in itself — and had happily lost myself in the “past.”
The plot is hard to describe without giving away some of the surprises, but (like Angelmaker) it features outsized characters who can do the impossible, a fabulously surreal and original world-threatening disaster, explosive action, and crackling dialogue. It is intellectual literary fiction mashed up with popcorn action flick with a dash of gong fu. When you finally find out what the “Go Away War” is, it is surprising and awful and irresistible. Some of the tropes and characters may seem a little familiar, but this particular mixture results in Harkaway’s unique blend of insanity. It took me a while to finish (because I was also busy reading piles of serious comics) but I had a blast.
Whatever meandering paths Harkaway is currently concocting in that wacky brain of his, count me in.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review.