Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Nick Harkaway: Angelmaker

Lord, that was fun.

Not as purely brilliant as The Goneaway World, but fun. The Goneaway World was a hard book to carry on from. It had a fresh and distinctive voice and a perfectly pitched twist right in its heart where you least expected it; expertly set up, slyly telegraphed and utterly organic to the plot and theme of the book. When Harkaway pulled away the curtain, I couldn't decide what I admired the most; the brass bound audacity of his design, or the subtle elegance that left it sitting out there in the open the whole time, too damn big to see until the moment the camera pulled back. 

Wisely, savvily, perhaps even with one eye on the post Sixth Sense career of M Night Shyamalan, Harkaway didn't try to do that twice. Angelmaker is Harkaway saying "Right, you've seen what I can do when I put a great big twist into things. Here's how it looks when I go straight from the beginning through the middle to the end…" There are twists and turns and reversals of fate, but at no point does Harkaway take the whole damn tablecloth of his world and give it the brisk shaking that drove The Goneaway World through its magnificent rabbit hole. 

Inevitably, what you get is much less awesome, but it's still a warmly satisfying book. Harkaway's voice is all his own, delighting in the flow and sound of language, of description for its own sake, of the solid deliberate heft of intricately made things. And just as much delighting in the company of his characters; in Harkaway's richly imagined world, henchmen and sidekicks are as solid and charming as anyone else's protagonists, and perfectly likely to announce - at precisely the correct moment - that they're nobody's henchman. As with The Goneaway World, Harkaway has Neal Stephenson's love of devices and digression for their own sake, married somehow to Tim Powers' sense of people as frail yet indomitable heroes in a world gone too bonkers for any one person to have a hope of survival, let alone victory. 

It was hard to write much about what happens in The Goneaway World, given the big lump of gotcha lying in the middle and twined around every part of the plot. It's much easier to parcel out what happens in Angelmaker, because once the clockwork is set in motion, any surprises and reversals are only of the kind that every ripping yarn of high adventure gives us. The hero will slowly realise how little he understands, will have an epiphany, and will triumphantly grow to be all he can be. This is the corniest plot in the whole world, which does not matter at all if the person telling the story is good enough to drag you all the way in and make you give a damn anyhow. Done, and done, I'm happy to say, and a little bit of me suspects that Harkaway was quite deliberately playing around with that corny plot and tweaking it to see just how much of it he could wave at us all.

Goneaway was - in part - about a weapon which takes all the meaning out of reality, and what might rush to fill the gap. Angelmaker is about a weapon which shows everyone what reality really is, and drives them crazy when they realise just how little meaning their lives have if they become absolutely certain what will inevitably happen next. Say this for Nick Harkaway, say he's not afraid to roll out crazily abstract concepts in the service of his plot. But Angelmaker isn't about the world that a weapon like that would make; it's about how rotten embattled governments could make life for a simple clockmaker unlucky enough to switch that weapon on by accident, and about how much of a badass that clockmaker might have to become to survive.

Along the way, there's huge fun for the reader, if not for the luckless Joe Spork and his associates. Joe, poor bugger, is off on the hero's journey, so there's lost parents, schwacked friends, capture and torture on the agenda for him before he stride out to vanquish the unrighteous. So to provide all the awesome we'd need in the run-up to that, we've got Edie Bannister, girl spy turned geriatric badass supreme, who at no point in her life is ever less than totally magnificent. This ought to be utterly annoying, but it's not. Edie's the kind of character who makes you want a whole series of books consisting of nothing but her doing ever more improbable things, though I'm hoping Nick will use that savvy I mentioned earlier and leave things just perfect as they are. We get her as the most dangerous ninety year old lady in London, and indeed possibly the world, and we also get her in the 1940s, nothing like as wily and effortless as she will become, but plugging the gap with youth, vigour and absurdly believable courage. Edie's just great. Did I say that already? Huge fun. And the first thing I've read in ages which can even begin to challenge the intricately maniacal world of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which imagined an entire parallel universe of grounded yet eldritch shenanigans on the edges of WWII's code breaking efforts; Harkaway tops it effortlessly without even bothering to pretend it's supposed to be plausible. Mammoth code breaking trains and aircraft carrier sized handmade submarine criss-cross the globe for Britannia not because it's remotely credible, but because it's cool. And do you honestly need another reason?

Harkaway has now questioned reality - and given the secret state a sharp and well-deserved poke in the eye while he was at it - from two different angles, and it's anyone's guess if that's going to be his long term schtick. It doesn't matter. You bring a style like that and that knack for characters you want to have a pint with, and it doesn't really matter what the book's actually about.

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