Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Gone Away

with 11 comments

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.

Written by Martin

19 February 2009 at 12:10

Posted in books, films, sf

Tagged with , ,

11 Responses

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  1. I responded over at Strange Horizons but I also wanted to tap the table appreciatively at your comparison with the early novels of Michael Marshall Smith. I did not pick up on the similarities but now that I think of it, they are quite compelling. MMS was also fond of awkwardly layering social realism with gonzo flights of the imagination.

    Jonathan M

    19 February 2009 at 12:42

  2. Amazing how different humans look at the same things and see them entirely differently.


    19 February 2009 at 14:50

  3. the ending, the whole final act, in fact, shows that Harkaway was never interested in this in the first place.

    What is the “this” here? Not interested in how memories construct identity? Or not interested in the ninjas/larger than life/fantastical bits? I disagree in either case, but I’d like to be precise about it. [g]


    19 February 2009 at 17:13

  4. What is the “this” here?

    The former: the idea that memories are unreliable and we build our narratives for our lives. Perhaps I should edit for clarity.


    19 February 2009 at 17:20

  5. OK. Well, I disagree with that because I see it as part of the book’s larger concern with how (or whether) order can be carved out of chaos; it’s not so much that memories are a distorted picture of our lives as that they are a distorted picture of the world. I agree with you that “act three” is too long, but I think it’s essential to the ultimate development of this theme. Act three starts with the narrator acquiring agency and freedom (becomes more than the sum of someone else’s memories, starts to build his own narrative for his life), and ends with the world itself being given a similar freedom, or perhaps with everyone being given the freedom to build their own narrative. I don’t think you can disentangle any of that from a concern with the nature of memory; though I would agree that the ultimate conclusion is a suggestion that we can escape from memory, that we are not always and forever defined by who we think we are.


    19 February 2009 at 18:00

  6. I don’t think I said Act Three was too long, I said it was too weak. I’m not sure the narrator does become more than the sum of someone else’s memories either. Although he is now able to reject them as false he was still created by them. Without wishing to get bogged down in a tedious freewill versus determinism debate I would argue his agency and freedom remains illusory.

    (It is interesting that in the flashbacks Gonzo is whole and X is half and in the present Gonzo is half and X is whole though.)


    19 February 2009 at 19:04

  7. Without wishing to get bogged down in a tedious freewill versus determinism debate I would argue his agency and freedom remains illusory

    I think this is a fairly fundamental disagreement about the book, then! And to be honest I’d have to re-read to rebut in any sort of detail, except to say that my feeling that he gains agency is based simply on the fact that he starts to have experiences that are his, that are not mediated through Gonzo’s consciousness. The narrator starts to diverge from Gonzo’s idea of him. That’s basically central to my appreciation of the book — both in terms of how I understand what it’s trying to achieve/say, and literally in terms of how much I admire it, because gifting the narrator with that level of reality feels like a wholehearted embrace of the fantastic that everything has been heading towards.


    24 February 2009 at 17:39

  8. Do you remember Ground Force? BBC Gardening makeover show, with Charlie Dimmock braless under her shirt in all weathers and Alan Titchmarsh in his pre Total Media Domination phase? I never could see the point of that show, not being particularly interested in gardening, and fancying neither Titchmarsh nor Dimmock. Its enormous popularity baffled me. Then I read a piece in the Guardian (I think it was) by Simon Hoggart, in which he said: people who think this show is about gardening are missing its point. The truth, and the secret of its success, is that it is really a show about messing about and having fun with your mates.

    Now, I’m a bit like Spongebob S.‘s Plankton in the ‘understanding fun’ and ‘having mates’ stakes; but I can surely understand why this concept would strike a chord with a large audience. This, surely, is what most people would like to spend most of their time doing.

    This rambly prelude is by way of saying: I think the core of the appeal of The Gone Away World is precisely that. It’s a novel about having fun adventures with your mates. I found its tone pretty grating a lot of the time, to be honest, but I can’t deny that it’s the authentic hearty tone of Having Fun With Your Mates; and the ‘fun’ dial, being turned up to eleven on every page, is responsible both for the delight and the infuriation of the novel. Everything else is secondary to that, the High Concpet, the plotting, even The Twist. Like Jonathan M. I was unsurprised by the twist; I’d wager most sf-literature readers will have spotted the Deckardian ‘How can it not know what it is?’ thing long before it The Twist is revealed. But that’s not the point of the novel, really. The point of the novel is baking a textual cake that is all sugar, all the time.


    3 March 2009 at 12:57

  9. (Incidentally, ‘rhulcreativewriters’, there, is me logged in at another one of my sites.)

    Adam Roberts

    3 March 2009 at 12:59

  10. That’s a terrifying idea Adam.

    The Americans produce series like Friends in which people lounge around fantastic apartments engaging in witty banter with attractive women (well… before Courtney Cox became one of the undead).

    The British produce a series in which people build a patio. Every fucking week.

    It’s like that Red Dwarf episode “Better than Life”. The British are like Rimmer in that even their aspirational fantasies are depressing, exhausting and mundane.

    Jonathan M

    4 March 2009 at 14:34

  11. […] thought <The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, […]

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