The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway is a fun book and an immensely readable one but not, in the end, a good one. This is because it falls awkwardly between two stools: revelling in its own fantastic adventure whilst stressing that it is telling the truth. This is one of those books that makes a point of saying that real life isn’t really like it is portrayed in books. Not those other books, anyway; this book, on the other hand…
The problem is he wants to have his cake and eat it: insisting that this is the way the world really is whilst at the same presenting a deeply cartoonish world. This cartoonishness manifests itself particularly in the over-sized characters (or, in the case of most of the women, under-sized) that populate the novel and this is where it most comes into conflict with the jabbing authorial finger of veracity. In his very perceptive review Jonathan McCalmont interestingly compares the novel to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and also suggests a reason for this cartoonishness:
Fourth, we have the idea that memories are a distorted picture of our lives. The book’s big plot twist did not surprise me in any way, as the shadow’s childhood is filled with ninjas, exploding ice fountains, aggressively liberal teachers pretending to be religious fundamentalists and impossibly sexy and sophisticated ex-girlfriends. These are, broadly speaking, not the kind of things that real lives are made of, but different events can loom so large in our memory as to become distorted exaggerations of themselves.
I’m not entirely convinced by this reading but it certainly explains why he reacted so strongly to the ending. I take the view from the opposite direction; that the ending – the whole final act, in fact – shows that Harkaway was never interested in this idea about people creating their own narratives in the first place. The Gone-Away World is a straightforward three act novel with a prologue (or, perhaps more accurately, a hook) at the begining. The prologue sets the scene, introducing our narrator and his band of adventurers, not to mention the strange world that now exists since the Go Away War. We then move into act one, an extremely long flash back that details our narrator’s life from childhood to adolesence to university to work. Harkaway’s dense, digressionary style – not disimilar to Neal Stephenson, except Harkaway shows a lot more evidence of having actually engaged with the real world – makes it even longer. Then the Go Awar War breaks out, the world changes and the next act is spent dealing with this. It ends in a classic second act low with our narrator cuckolded and shot by his best mate. The distinctly underpowered final act sees him trying to make sense of these acts before Harkaway ludicrously ties all the loose ends together in a dissapoitningly linear series of escaltating action set piece that conclude with our hero saving the world by having a punch up with the evil villain. You know, like in the movies.
By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.
The Gone-Away World is also another entry into the exciting but small and barely mapped subgenre in which the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but a wrongness. Reality itself changes, becomes sticky and inconsistent. Other examples might include Vurt by Jeff Noon and the early novels of Michael Marshall Smith. More on this later once the thoughts have properly percolated.
Tangentially but related to the idea of stories about Story I watched all three Shrek films last weekend. Interestingly the trilogy follows the same curve as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: well executed but fairly straightforward parody; wonderfully dense meta-text; slightly over moralising shadow of former glory. Pratchett himself is responsible for The Amazing Maurice And his Educated Rodents, one of the best stories about Story and one which manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of The Gone-Away World and, indeed, his own later work.