I think my initial reaction to this book, upon reading the first 10 pages or so, was, “What the hell is this?” (or some f-bomb-laced variation thereof) The galley is a tough HOT fuscia in color, but the copy on the back read that it “combines antic humor (think Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut) with a stunning futuristic vision (a la A Clockwork Orange and 1984, with a little Mad Max thrown in)”. Intriguing. And actually, the resulting book is pretty magnificent, I have to say. It’s one of those novels that sticks in your craw and keeps surfacing back into your consciousness, interrupting your life with mimes, ninjas, and the end of the world as we know it.
Published in the UK in June to some substantial acclaim (see reviews in The Guardian and The Independent), The Gone-Away World is just now making it’s way into American bookshops – although, not every one. Perhaps if people were aware that Nick Harkaway is the son of bestselling author, John le Carré, they would be further enticed? In order to be able to write a novel that was truly his own, Harkaway changed his name and does not openly publicize his heritage – it is not mentioned at all in the jacket copy. As a result, his work stands firmly on its own – a brilliant move actually, since this could not possibly be any less like a John le Carré spy novel. In illustrating the differences between his and his father’s work, Harkaway said “There is not now, nor I suspect will there ever be, a le Carré novel with ninjas in it. Most serious novelists are wary of including ninjas in their writing. That’s a shame, because many much-admired works of modern fiction could benefit from a few.” That may give an indication of what we’re dealing with here. Although, actually, you cannot imagine.
What would happen if our government was able to devise a weapon that would actually just make our enemies disappear? To literally cease to exist. This would seem to be a perfect form of warfare, right? No blood, no mess, no collateral damages. Not so much. In Harkaway’s world, the damages left behind by making things “go away” are far, far worse than the initial threats. And when your enemies manage to devise a similar weapon for use against you, the world ends up with more substantial gaps in its very existence than anyone anticipated. When the earth is erased, it seems that our imaginations cross over into reality – creating monstrous figments come to life to fill in the gaps. All of our worst fears are physically realized: war is a physical presence, sweeping across the landscape like a black cloud; hideous, half-human creatures roam the landscape; images torn from our very nightmares confront their makers.
“Sometimes, the nightmares look like people.”
Fortunately (or so one would initially think), the government figures out a way to keep the nightmare world at bay – or rather, Gonzo Lubitsch and his team of mercenary problem solvers figure it out. See, the bad things in the world are a result of the Stuff – residual fallout from the gone-away war machine. The Stuff sort of drifts across the landscape, wreaking havoc, making nightmares real. However, FOX (“the magic potion which kept the part of the world we still had roughly the same shape day by day“) was discovered to have antidote properties to the Stuff, so the government built the Jorgamund Pipe – an earth-encircling pipeline filled with FOX which manages to create a safe perimeter of a livable zone. Still with me?
Of course, no government is to be trusted, least of all one which created a weapon of mass existential erasure, so there is an even larger, more sinister layer to all this, involving a good ol’ fashioned vast government conspiracy. Which brings me to the biggest question: Who, exactly, is this unnamed narrator and what is his role in all of this? This is without a doubt the most intriguing storyline – and one which I cannot divulge any information regarding. Sorry, but I’d just be ruining it for you.
This is a crazy book, make no mistake. It is sci-fi, alternate reality, loopy stuff, but paired with very skilled writing and an amazingly rich cast of characters. After I finished this, I thought I was done with it – in the sense that a reader is usually able to move onto the next book, without feeling like they’re leaving something unfinished behind. In her book The Thirteenth Tale, a novel I did not particularly care for, Diane Setterfeld posed this query to the reader: “Do you know that feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.” Hell yes. These characters were real, man. I could feel Gonzo Lubitsch and Ronnie Cheung and Humbert Pestle and Master Wu and Zaher Bey moving and breathing all around me, long after the book was closed and reshelved. In such a wacky, unpredictable, bizarre novel, Harkaway was able to wallop me in the face with such real people, that I was completely caught off guard, and in fact only realized their impact on me after I had wrapped things up. It is a very well-paced, well-crafted, surprisingly intricate and intelligent book that defies genre pigeon-holing and forces the reader to reexamine our own current reality and the state of the world. Are we so far off from this nonsense?
Despite all of that “reality of character” talk, the most incredible facet about this book is the fact that even on the pages within, you are never really sure who is actually a real person, and who is just a nightmare become real from the fallout of the Gone-Away War. Pretty cool.