Monday, 6 August 2012

Nick Harkaway: The Gone Away World

Since this is fundamentally a blog about snarking things off, it's always hard to know where to begin with something that I admire. The Gone Away World was something I decided not to read when it came out. It seemed like something I wasn't going to like; too whimsical or serious or literary or something. Four years later I somehow changed my mind and decided to give it a shot, and I've been slowly reading it over the course of the past week. Slowly, because occasionally you hit a book which you want to take your time over; I rarely read a full chapter at a sitting until I'd got to the magical point where what was left of the book was too thin to hold comfortably in one hand. Whereupon, as you do, I galloped through the last eighty or so pages in one go.

Harkaway shares with Neal Stephenson a nerdly willingness to digress off into detail about small things which matter to specialists of one kind and another, but unlike Stephenson, he can usually keep it in check. So every few pages, there's a diverting little aside which leaves you wondering if it's true, or just something that sounds odd enough to be true. It's probably best to assume that most of it is genial blather, not least because Harkaway does genial blather so well that I ought not to have been surprised to read in his afterword that one of his big influences was PG Wodehouse. It's a very un-Wodehousian book, until he mentions it, and then you're running back over it and realising that it is exactly what might have happened if Wodehouse had been a huge modern nerd with an interest in martial arts movies and science fiction, and had set one of his farces in a post apocalyptic wasteland. 

It's a crafty book; there's a killer reveal in the middle of it which has been artfully foreshadowed and yet is completely organic to the plot. Yes, I thought, of course. Everything has been leading up to this point, and every little thing which has bugged me about the narrator's story so far has just neatly fallen into place. It's quite wonderfully cunning. In a way, it's too good to top, so it's a pity that the book still has some way to go before it gets to the end. I'm not sure that anything could be done about that, short of ripping it all up and starting again. You could run with the reveal early and then go through the working out, or you could leave it even later, but then there's no time for the loose ends. Or you could opt for the tricky structure that Iain M Banks adopted in Use of Weapons, but as I thought about that, I thought of the way that Banks' debut The Wasp Factory managed the tricky business of a narrator who isn't at all what we think. Yes, it can be done, but my word, it's tricky. 

The Gone Away World is, at one level, simply a book with a truly clever gimmick at its heart, and a very intricate master plot all around the edge of that. But if all it was was a gimmick, I'd have raced through it and moved on to something else in the monster pile of books sitting around the house. Instead I savoured it, because it's a really nicely written book; the narrator's voice is entertaining and comfortable, and his vision of the world as being perfectible, if hardly perfect, is an infectious one. I wanted to take my time with it, the same way that you don't want an enjoyable evening to end. Nick Harkaway seems like he'd be a nice bloke to have a drink with. He also has the kinds of doubts about our modern world that I've harboured for most of my own life. He's not really hiding them, either. The Gone Away War, which is the inciting incident for most of the action, revolves around the use of a bomb which removes the information from mass and energy, so that it doesn't know how to exist any more and just disappears. The problem, as only becomes apparent when the great powers have their Oppenheimer moment after the fact, is that something has to fill the information vacuum this creates, and that something is whatever random thoughts are running through people's minds in the neighbourhood. An antidote is needed, some kind of nonsensical and meaningless information which will fill the gap without creating any new reality. That antidote is referred to as FOX. Of course it is.

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