Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Nick Harkaway: The Gone-Away World (2008)

Edition: Windmill Books, 2009

The first chapter of The Gone-Away World describes an unusual post-apocalyptic scenario: the Earth has suffered a complete warping of reality, where places disappear and people turn into monsters, except where the mysterious Pipe pumps Stuff into the air to stabilise normality. The next 350 pages of the novel describe how this disaster came about, through the eyes of a faithful sidekick. Although this sounds like a typical science fiction scenario, much of the noel - almost the whole of the first half - is not really of the genre. The lengthy flashback is a gonzo coming of age story of one of the people who witnessed the catastrophe. This is told in a darkly humourous manner, quite brilliantly evocative of an eccentric background, finding space to parody martial arts film clichés.

Harkaway also has a taste for philosophising, and tackles some big themes: the relationship between physics, philosophy and psychology, and the origin of evil (in particular the immorality of groups which commit crimes their members would never consider on their own). This may not be to every reader's taste, but a thoughtful narrator is something I like. Even the theme of the Pipe and the Stuff has something to say, about the way that imagination is related to the real world around us.

The novel also has a pretty good twist, which is only revealed about two thirds of the way through but which works rather like the twist in the film Sixth Sense, in that many readers might well want to go back to the beginning and reread it in view of the revelation. I don't want to give it away here, so I will say no more about it.

One of the issues in modern literature, the subject of a well known book of criticism The Anxiety of Influence, is how a writer relates to the vast quantity of written words that precede his or her work. Nick Harkaway puts it like this, in the acknowledgments at the end of The Gone-Away World: "I have, as is customary, borrowed from (read pillaged) every story I have ever loved to write my own." None of the writers specifically mentioned (Wodehouse, Conan Doyle and Dumas) seemed obvious direct influences to me. But it is certainly true that I was reminded of other writers continually as I read his debut: Joseph Heller, China Miéville, John Barth, Iain Banks, Evelyn Waugh and so on, though in the end I have decided that the book that it is most similar to in tone and content is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

The Gone-Away World, borrowed from the library, has gone on my wishlist of books to purchase. I would rate it at 9/10.

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