The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
All fiction should trigger some sort of emotional response. Be it laughing, crying, fear or unease, good fiction fills your soul with the world on the page and the “real” world, with all its own issues, melts away for a few hours. Every so often, really good fiction triggers something more than just emotion, really good fiction, for just that moment you are in, blurs the lines between realities. In the case of Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World (His latest, because we love to do things in the right order here at Boney Abroad, Tigerman is reviewed here), I was transfixed for about two thirds and then got so angry with a narrative left turn (that, in hindsight, I totally should have seen coming) that I threw the book aside, in a foot stamping fury that would have made Rumpelstiltskin blush, for about a week and a half. Never being one to leave a book unfinished, no matter how poor the decisions of the author, I steeled myself, gathered it from the bedside table and was saved, quite literally (literaturely?) in this case, by the mimes.
The Gone-Away World opens in the Nameless Bar on Exmoor, run by an innkeeper of the foulest mouth and powered by pigs, in a world after ours went away. Our heroes, the Narrator, his best friend Gonzo William Lubitsch and the members of the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (totally need a company t-shirt), are busy playing pool and debating what the actual hell the kid running round the bar is, when the telly shows a huge fire on The Pipe. The Jorgmund Pipe brings the life giving FOX to what is left of the world. Once seeing the explosion and fire on the news, the team know it is just a matter of time before Jorgmund comes calling for the best HazMat company on the books. Which Jorgmund promptly do and, mysterious phone call later, with the added incentive of a new fleet of truck-cum-tanks, the Freebooters head off, via the doomed Drowned Cross, to tackle the blaze with some rather impressive boxes that make big explosions. And that, for a good chunk of the rest of the novel, is that. Our Narrator takes up back to the sandpit in the idyllic Cricklewood Cove and Kid Gonzo making friends with our Narrator and bringing him into the wonderful world of the Family Lubitsch. The tale winds through the differing personalities of the two friends, Gonzo being the sporting hero and our narrator, being the more introverted of the two, joins the tutelage of Master Wu and School of the Voiceless Dragon and learns the mysterious arts over apple cake and tea. The boys grow up and slightly apart as their lives take them to university, including a near rendition of the Narrator due to being drawn to the political left by a mysterious woman and her wiles. We see our boys join the army, Gonzo heading into the Special Forces and the Narrator to a mysterious division that is creating the ultimate “clean” weapon. As is one of the traits of The Family Cornwell, of which Harkaway is a fully paid up member, this lengthy aside is wonderfully written. From the monumental day that Cuba joins the Union to create the United Island Kingdoms of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Cuba Libre to the Automotive Tactical Engagement in Theory and Practice with Ronnie Cheung, it is engaging, entertaining and creates enough questions to keep the main story moving. And ninjas. When the Go Away weapon is deployed in far off Addeh Katir, the "secret" and "clean" weapon reveals that no weapon is clean, nor really secret, and while it removes matter, in its place is the data, The Stuff, that needs to be reformed. The new creatures formed by the imaginations of those left alive, encroach on the old world and is only stopped when Jorgmund and the FOX arrive to push back the horrors. When we arrive back at the beginning, the odd questions of the Pipe and FOX remain, and the narrative takes that left hand turn I mentioned before, luckily Comrade Cow, Ike Thermite and The Matahuxee Mime Combine arrive (also need a t-shirt for the combine) and, fury abated, we are led to a finish that lives up to the promise of the rest of the novel.
Nick Harkaway has a brilliant turn of phrase and his prose style is fluent and highly wry, in a good way. From debates about statistics with Civil Servants to intra-department corporate rivalries to trying to figure out what the hell is going on, Harkaway keeps you engaged and involved throughout. The digression that takes up most of the book is wonderfully entertaining and, while at times you wonder how this is going to pan out, it works out surprisingly well. Creating alternate worlds can lead to flights of fancy that, as a reader, you may never really buy into. Harkaway’s world is wonderfully familiar and yet happily distant, which gives the author a wonderful sandpit to plop his heroes and villains into and continually craft until the ninjas show up and muck everything up for everyone. I cannot remember a novel that has made me this angry because of something that really i should have spotted, but the bond you build with the Narrator and Gonzo are such, you feel a member of the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor and of the School of the Voiceless Dragon and that you've been invited to join whatever game that Gonzo and Marcus concocted in the sandpit. The Gone-Away World is an incredible debut novel, of impressively huge scope, but, thankfully (infuriatingly for a moment) the narrative keeps the story feeling genuine and personal. Riding shotgun with Gonzo and the team is a very rewarding journey.