- 28 January 2009
- By Gerard Wood
On balance it’s difficult not to recommend Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, as its one significant flaw is outweighed by its many virtues. Here is a novel bursting with originality and deserving of praise for its ambitious scope. Harkaway writes with an obvious delight in the English language and the courage and mastery to bend the written word to his will. Unafraid to take risks, the risks pay off more often than not.
For a start, the novel refuses the security of classification. Or at least it can be categorised only in so far as it refuses to be limited by definitions of genre. How else do you classify a novel that successfully combines science fiction, fantasy, horror and the political thriller alongside conspiracy theories and war, a troupe of mysterious mimes, sinister ninjas and esoteric martial arts?
Sometimes witty and sardonic, even downright hilarious, sometimes mellow and philosophical, the tone rises and falls on a narrative wave beneath which is a swell of anger against the absurdity of war. The scale of the narrative is epic and commences in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is alien and horrific, somewhat insane and strangely familiar. The unnamed narrator introduces us to his closest friend Gonzo Lubitsch and the other members of the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company. Formerly elite soldiers and now for hire as trouble-shooters extraordinaire, the Company is hired to undertake a dangerous mission to keep what’s left of the world safe from the effects of the Go-Away War, an absurd conflict with an all too familiar rationale and horrific, if logical, outcome: the devastation of the planet. The Go-Away bomb, a top secret weapon that everyone seems to have had in their arsenal, was unleashed to devastating effect, erasing reality itself from much of the planet, and replacing it with an environment that responds to the human imagination, bringing forth a nightmare of the darkest fears of mankind.
What remains is the Liveable Zone, a narrow strip of reality maintained by the Jorgmund pipe that snakes around the planet pumping FOX into the air to counteract the unreal Stuff of nightmare. The pipe has been sabotaged and is on fire and Gonzo and his team are called in to save the day. As they head off to avert disaster, the narrative slips back to the narrator’s childhood and we trace the history of an insane conflict that destroys the world as we know it, and are drawn along unwittingly to a plot twist about the narrator that is wholly satisfying.
If Harkaway’s novel has a fault, it is its pacing which hurtles along at a furious rate through action-packed scenes, long and witty passages of dialogue or sardonic observations, building a head of steam, piling detail on detail, paragraph after paragraph, page after page until … it collapses under the sheer weight of detail and grinds to a laborious crawl. The author’s virtuous love of language does occasionally become a fault, wallowing in detail to the point of distraction. I confess that it took me some while to attune myself to Harkaway’s style, and only as I was on the verge of giving up did I find the magical rhythm of it.
From then on, I couldn’t put The Gone-Away World down. Sometimes it really does pay to persevere.
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