The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

William Heinemann, 2008, 540 p.

 The Gone Away World cover

The Jorgmund Pipe circles the Gone-Away world, protecting its environs from the Stuff which conjures new people and things out of dreams snatched from the minds of survivors of the Go Away War by delivering FOX (inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated matter) into the air surrounding it. It is the aftermath of said War, so-called because of the deployment of Go Away bombs (which do as their name suggests; their targets simply disappear.) Not quite as secret a weapon as its original users thought, though, since retaliation in kind came swiftly, leaving only pockets of normality in its wake and the unforeseen side-effect of strange apparitions/demons/monsters, (delete as to taste) swirling out of the affected areas, manifestations of Stuff.

Nothing hereafter ought to detract from what in the end turned out to be an engaging, emotionally involving read. Harkaway is a talent, as he has shown in subsequent books, but this novel is not without its flaws – even if it does have a daring conceit as its turning point.

We kick off when (despite an anonymous phone call advising its employees not to) the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, of which our narrator is a member, takes up a contract to put out a fire which threatens to destroy both the Pipe and the factory producing FOX. The company’s unwieldy title is an indicator of Harkaway’s approach here, an exuberance of word-play which tends to the wearing – at least until the book settles down. The author is certainly not afraid to call a spade a horticultural implement and otherwise circumlocute all the way around a subject in an attempt to provide levity, or (if you wish to be generous) to avoid cliché or the humdrum. It certainly makes for an impressive word-count. It was Harkaway’s first novel though, so we may forgive a little exuberance. (A little, but not a lot.)

Despite the destruction wrought by the Gone-Away bombs, there are still buses and cars (leaving me to wonder where the petrol for them came from) streetlamps, shops – gentlemen’s outfitters no less – and hierarchies of wealth much like that in the world before the war. Despite all having changed, in the larger settlements of the Pipe’s environment things appear to be much as they were before the War. (A nit-picking complaint, I agree, the author’s invention and creativity have been expended in other areas and it is possible to ask too much of a narrative, but it seemed to me to land on a default which the scenario would have made unlikely and thus undermined it.)

Then there is the book’s structure. By all means begin as near to the end as possible (as a piece of writing advice I read recently had it) but it is perhaps a mistake to presage a set-piece then – for all that it is the novel’s fulcrum – delay its depiction for well more than half the book. From that set-up we jump to our narrator’s back-story and relationship with his lifelong friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, his tutelage by a Zen master known as Wu Shenyang, his dabbling with roughly left-wing politics as a means to accessing girls, his targeting as a subversive and turning into a soldier and counter-insurgent, his encounter with the inventor of the Go-Away bomb, his awareness of the dirtiness of politics and international financial manœuvrings, his experience of the War and of its aftermath in the building of the Jorgmund Pipe. One highlight of this is a description of the difficulties of organising and carrying through a first-date – or making flapjacks – in a war zone; a ‘normal’ war zone at that.

The piece of authorial bravado at the heart of the book – which in its own terms justifies that structural choice – does not quite make up for it. For what happens when we are finally shown the Civil Freebooting Company extinguishing the fire – and incidentally discover along with the characters just how FOX is made – calls into question all that has come before. Not quite as in Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins but in a similar vein (yet opposite sense.) It does though highlight the question of what it might mean to be human. That is, of course, fiction’s job.

Pedant’s corner:- a few commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “one less layer” (one fewer,) “to test their metal” (Dearie me! The thing is you test is mettle,) hiccough (there is no derivational evidence for this spelling; hiccup,) “dinted grill” (grille,) appalls (appals,) genii (except in the sense of ‘spirit’ – which here it was not – the English plural of genius is geniuses,) infinitessimal (infinitesimal,) “so now there is now a crowd” (one ‘now’ too many,) “layed out” (laid out,) “beautiful woman are not rare” (women,) rarified (rarefied,) “‘I thought you were a gonner’” (a goner,) “I have kneeled” (knelt,) burglarised (for heaven’s sake! The word is burgled,) squidgey (squidgy,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) an opened parenthesis which is never closed (unless it was by the parenthesis later on the same page. But it didn’t read like that.)

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