(Camilla is going to have to forgive me. I’ve read Nick Harkaway‘s allegedly brilliant, definitely funny, undeniably clever The Gone-Away World two and a half times, and due to no fault of the book’s – well, very few – I have never liked it much. This is partially because I was in a terrible mood each time I read it, partially because I am not fond of the particular structural format, and partially because I read a particular Gaiman and a particular Pratchett before I read it the first time and so figured out a particular character plot point before it was “shown”.
Anyway, first I shall complain, then I shall get to the good bits. If I were you I would read this review from finish to start.)
The Gone-Away World
By Nick Harkaway
The narrator of The Gone-Away World establishes himself in quick order as observant, quiet, judgmental, something of a non-entity and yet somehow unable to shut up. I don’t know whether it is Harkaway (I’m afraid I don’t read his blog very often and so cannot be sure) – who is certainly clever enough that maybe in the real world he finds himself having to explain things over and over again to people slower than he is or less funny or who speak a different language – or whether non-entities in general need more words to fill up their empty spaces. But the narrator, whom I call Babycakes since he is so non-entitous he doesn’t give us a name, will tell you something. A while later he will tell you the same thing in a different way. Both times he is clever, and funny. But the third time he tells you something you want to strangle him, Harkaway and his best friend Gonzo. (Just on principle.)
Um. Right. Babycakes works with “Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (corporate HQ the Nameless Bar, CEO Sally J. Culpepper, presiding)“. Aside from establishing himself as an over-wordy non-entity, he also goes on to be unreliable and to make fun of someone named “Washburn“. No matter how pathetic, showy and yucky the corporate drone in question, this just makes me dislike him more.
Ahem. The world is in ruins. The Pipe surrounds the Liveable areas, the Border marks the “Here There Be Dragons (and Pirates)” land between the Liveable zone and the Unreal. No one wants anything to do with the Unreal, and the Pipe is the only thing between Liveable zones and complete hysterical chaos.
The Pipe is on fire. This is a catastrophe, worse since the world it threatens only barely clawed itself together after The Go-Away War, and someone – enter Sally Culpepper and her dashing, unwashed posse (actually I daresay they’re all very clean, but I cannot for the life of me see them that way) – must save the day. In return, the corporate semi-drone offers them sexy new trucks. Two to a truck, (Babycakes rides passenger with Gonz0) and off they go!
At which point the narrator flashes backwards to his and Gonzo’s childhoods, and takes half a book and more to bring them back to their shiny new badass trucks. So in the second chapter I decided that I would pretend that this book used the same general motif in the Pratchett and the Gaiman novels I had read just before.
I dislike this particular sort of frame story, since it fools me into thinking of the middle of the story – in this case, setting off to stop a fire – as the beginning, and the flashback as important background that is still wasting my time until I get back to the beginning. It’s a good ruse at info-dump, but it is still a way to get through the not-as-exciting bildungsroman by promising you that at some point there will be fire. But I am definitely in a minority on this one.
In between massive info/opinion dumps, taken by Babycakes and everyone else who exists to inform and otherwise attempt to develop him, skirting around Psychology, Capitalism and Bad Ergonomics 101, Babycakes and Gonzo make friends. Babycakes is unofficially adopted into Gonzo’s family, they grow up, and they have shenanigans. Gonzo is the charismatic do-now guy, Babycakes is the shadowy sidekick.
There are Masters with ninja enemies. There are girls, mostly unreachable. There is school, and Uni, and jobs after. There is the military, and military secrets. There are many, many, many cool guys who try to teach Babycakes how to be badass. (Gonzo is naturally somewhat badass, while not all the black leather in the world can make Babycakes any less verbose or lost.)
There is a War. Babycakes falls in love, gets married, meets Iraqi the local politicians/heroes/better men than he/pirates in small cars – and through a series of accidents and stupid moments, enough bombs (okay, let’s be fair, these bombs are cool [save my sinning pacifist soul for saying this); in essence, they remove information from matter, which means that the matter in question no longer exists – it Goes Away) are set off by enough nations (even Switzerland! There’s cynicism for you) to make most of the world unliveable).
It’s the apocalypse, and we did it ourselves.
All is not lost. There are clever pirates, and clever scientists who can make FOX, which is so information-rich the Go-Away stuff can’t cross it, and a massive project to lay down the Jorgmund Pipe cements Gonzo, Babycakes, the wife (who clearly exists just to be the wife and so I am not bothering to tell you her name) and the rest of their crew into the Company, led by Culpepper, that Freeboots.
Here there be dragons.
And, back at the beginning, there be excitement, and crisis, and tragedy.
Name me another story where a man steals his brother’s wife?
The Gone-Away World is weighed down by the amount of information the narrator/author assumes the reader needs to be taught. Over and over. But it’s, for all my irritation, a clever story – it’s written by a geek, for geeks, and for every recognisable trope is a moment of subversion – even that unreliable narrator. I suspect that if I had not read that Pratchett and then that Gaiman, I would have put down that book irritated only with the awkward verbosity, the sometimes clumsiness of communication.
There are pirates, ninjas, mimes and bees. There are families, of blood and of heart. There are narrators who suddenly thrust out into the world must retrace their steps to find out who they are, and what they must do. There are brothers who must be saved, beloved mentors who must be avenged. There are Corporations. There are people, whether we want to call them people or not. There is much, much paper, and an extraordinary amount of coolth.
This is a wild, fully-packed novel, observant, cynical, waving the geek-pride flag without sitting in the previous generation’s basement. The action sequences are beautiful – the prose here being both slow and exciting enough to have you hooked and unable to put the book down. There’s a final scene that reminds me very much of Buffy, whom I love, and so maybe on a day when I forget Pratchett and Gaiman I shall try this book again, give it another chance.