The Gone Away World 2008.
Written by Nick Harkaway.
Nick Harkaway’s first novel (so far), The Gone Away World is not the kind of book I would normally pick up these days. Sure I’m a big fan of science fiction and fantasy (among other genres) but if I’m going to read those kinds of things I usually read stuff which was either written between Victorian times and the 1960s or which is new but contains characters created within that time peroid. However, The Gone Away World was a “hard recommendation” from a person who I follow on Twitter (@flaysomewench) and since she’s such a charming poster I decided to actually listen to her and go buy a contemporary novel which didn’t feature, as their main characters, aging female morticians with their lesbian computer genius nieces, French Canadian bone experts and their Texan boyfriends or abused Swedish computer hackers with dragons adorning their body (as is my usual mainstay).
And so I read The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway and, I have to say, I’m really glad I did as it’s a really great read. The plot is a little less convoluted than I would expect from somebody who is, after all, the son of John Le Carre... but it really doesn’t matter if the basic plot and denoument are fairly simplistic because this book is absolutely oozing an absolutely joyful, playful and exuberent writing style which... even at it’s most darkest parts, grabs the attention of the reader and slowly but surely weaves a seductive spell over them.
The story is about the narrator (who doesn’t really have a name but I won’t go into that here) and his best friend Gonzo, his wife and his childhood sweetheart. The earth has suffered an apocalyptic disaster which, again, I really don’t want to spoil for you here... and it is up to our hero and Gonzo to save the world with the help of their ex-army buddy truck drivers. Once this set up has been established the story switches to flashback mode (just like a 1970s Marvel comic would do) and tells the story of our two heros as they grow up, fall in love, join the army and do all kinds of stuff which eventually leads you back to the “saving the earth” narrative thrust which started the tale... before splitting off again on a darker and more serious track where the stakes have been significantly raised (on the personal front) and the danger is ratcheted up to “what-the-fuck” level.
In tone, the book is somewhat a kind of a literary equivalent of Sergio Leone’s last movie Once Upon A Time In America (can’t speak for the novel that Leone’s masterpiece was “adapted” from as I haven’t read it)... except it’s more like Once Upon A Time In America with kung fu, ninjas, the art of dangerous driving and deadly mimes all mixed together with the horrors of war. And as postmodern and confusing as that sounds, it’s really no bad thing.
For a lot of the first couple of thirds of the novel I was getting kind of worried because the “twist” of one of the characters is actually quite well telegraphed in that the character’s origins seem very deliberately buried behind the writing style... I was expecting a major dissapointment when a certain twist was finally revealed. But here, Nick Harkaway has proven himself quite sure footed in his timing of this twist... he knows that a large section of his readers are going to figure out the true nature of the novel’s narrator... so instead of leaving it until the end where most writers would put it, he actually reveals that twist about two thirds, maybe three quarters, of the way through and then uses the reaction of that twist by all and sundry as the springboard for the last sections of the book. So even though I’d figured out that twist and had it listed as an option since the very early chapters of the book, I wasn’t that dissapointed as he’s using it to go somewhere with the story.
At some point towards the end, the story may get, perhaps, a little formulaic in its wrap up, but frankly the writing style is so friendly and quirky and readable that it doesn’t matter that the end game maybe owes more to mid-70s Saturday prime-time action TV than it does to any nobler influence. And I must stress that aspect because if you were to do a movie of this novel it would probably turn out as something quite pedestrian and boring at 24 frames per second because even a voice-over narrative wouldn’t have the time to give even a close impression of the densely packed in wit and intelligence which is the bedrock of the novel.
So I am, seriously, glad I decided to give this novel a go because it turns out that, in the way he tells the story rather than the actual content of that story perhaps, Nick Harkaway is a bit of a writing genius. And I’m grateful to have a new writer who’s books I can look forward to whenever they come out. Hope the next one doesn’t take too long to arrive!