The universe wants me to review this book. I know this because I have sitting in front of me not one, not two, but three advance review copies of Nick Harkaway's debut novel. I cannot open a newspaper without seeing the author's face grinning at me in a self-conscious manner. Nor can I access my feed reader without yet another review of the book popping up, intent upon commandeering my attention and my opinions before I have had time to set them down. The universality of The Gone-Away World's media coverage would not bother me, however, except for the fact that it has been universally positive. Mercifully (for the sake of my misanthropy), while The Gone-Away World is a book that has a lot going for it, it is by no means flawless.
The book breaks down into a series of long televisual episodes set before and after a terrible war that not only destroyed much of human civilisation, but also broke down the boundaries between what is actual and what is merely possible, allowing different ideas to latch onto each other and then become real. Gonzo Lubitsch is a hero-lout. The child of two decoratively eccentric East European émigrés, he grew up to be a sports star, expert martial artist and a member of the special forces. Gonzo also has a shadow, a side-kick who is more introverted, thoughtful, and sensitive than he is and who took every path that Gonzo decided not to venture down. For the bulk of the book we are encouraged to think that this shadow—the narrator—is Gonzo's best friend, but as the young man moves from learning kung fu from a decoratively eccentric Chinese émigré to fermenting political unrest alongside his impossibly sophisticated and beautiful girlfriend, it starts to become clear that there is something slightly unreal about him.
"The rumour is that we will never be allowed to live in the Liveable Zone because we are tainted; the Zone will be pure, for real people only, and we're on the cusp now because we've been exposed for too long." (p. 282)
When Gonzo and his (you guessed it) decoratively eccentric friends are called upon to Save The World by repairing the Jorgmund Pipe—the thing that sprays an aerosol that keeps the actual world actual and the possible world way the fuck over there—Gonzo is sprayed with unreal Stuff, forever separating him from his shadow. As a result, Gonzo teams up with some evil ninjas, while his shadow pulls together a group of decoratively eccentric heroes who not only want to stop Gonzo from doing something foolishly evil, but also want to let go of the old world and embrace the possibilities of the new one.
The Gone-Away World is a book that wants to be about the gap between our perception of the world and the world itself. In this, it is much like Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), which is told through a series of loosely connected vignettes, mostly past tense, and has a sense of reality that is so heightened that it frequently lapses into the surreal. Some aspects of the world are unclear, while others burn brightly with the kind of emotional and psychological importance that comes only with time and recollection. This is an effect that is used throughout The Gone-Away World, although the techniques by which it is achieved are slightly different.
When Gonzo's shadow tells us of the time he first encountered the man who he remembers teaching him kung fu, his description is ridiculously precise and well outside of the kind of thing a child might have noticed:
Wu Shenyang is tall and thin. He does not look like Buddha, he looks like a ladder in a dressing gown. Time has polished him, abraded him, and passed on, leaving him nearly eighty and stronger than a brace of college athletes, though he favours his right leg just a little. [...] Wu Shenyang laughs loudly—alarmingly—at inappropriate moments, and seems to take joy in inconsequential things, like the colour of window putty and the slipperiness of the carpet in front of his desk. (p. 48)
This sort of description suffuses the book and is attached to people, places, and even trucks. The fact that these descriptions are so precise and loaded with emotion makes it clear that they are never intended to be objective. By contrast, certain objective facts about the Gone Away world are never made clear, such as whether or not the shadow remembers having parents and what the Ninjas' plan actually was. The contrast between the important memories and the the issues glossed over give The Gone-Away World give the book the same dreamlike feel of heightened reality that Heller so carefully cultivated in Catch-22.
However, where Heller was stylistically ambitious, Harkaway is more traditional. Catch-22 was composed of a series of largely subjective vignettes that coincided with the different characters' memories, but by layering those vignettes one over the other, Heller managed to imbue his world with a sense of realism. There is never any sense that Catch-22 takes place in an alternate world or that the characters are crazy; rather we are encouraged to think that their world is our world and that it was the situation that was crazy and surreal. Harkaway, by contrast, sticks to one set of subjective experiences and places them quite carefully in a largely linear narrative that is partly told in flashback.
This break with Heller's formula has unfortunate results. First person perspective means that we tend to implicitly trust the character's perceptions of his world. Because there are no other viewpoint characters, there is no gap between the character's opinions about the world and the world itself. This is fine and good until Harkaway starts to reach for our heart strings.
When Master Wu dies, for example, we are expected to feel sadness and, to a certain extent, we do. However, this is not because Harkaway creates well drawn characters who inspire empathy; rather it is because Harkaway has a gift for description and does not hesitate to preload all of his characters with the emotional responses he expects from us. Consider the above description of Master Wu as a spry, whimsical, jovial, and loveable old man. He is loveable because that characteristic is built into him from the start, along with the fact that he is an 80 year-old kung fu master. Harkaway does not show us his characters' natures; he tells us. In truth his characters are barely differentiated and are memorable only because Harkaway is particularly skilled in the art of what James Blish once called "substituting funny hats for characterisation." In effect, Harkaway relies exclusively upon his linguistic skill to do all of the book's heavy emotional lifting. This makes reading it much like watching a weakly written film with a magnificently moving score: it affects us, but once the experience is over we realise quite how manipulative and lacking in genuine emotional content the experience was. However, while certainly unfortunate, this desire to lock the reader into an emotional reaction strikes me as nothing that could not be solved with experience and a willingness to allow his characters enough breathing room for us to empathise with them.
The lack of gap between the viewpoint character and the world is also problematic as the book's entire plot turns upon the true identity of Gonzo's shadow. Harkaway flirts with the idea of an unreliable narrator when he suggests that the shadow might not actually know kung fu despite "remembering" his training. He also suggests that the shadow's memories of his childhood home might be wrong. Indeed, The Gone-Away World has a lot of balls in the air at one moment as its first two acts painstakingly draw together four distinct but closely related ideas.
First, we have the solid SF idea of a weapon that "edits" the world by interfering with the metaphysical "information" layer that determines what is and what is not. This weapon is then used indiscriminately, resulting in the world's metaphysical layer becoming permanently permeable, allowing rogue possible ideas to escape into the real world.
Second, this new world, while full of dangerous monsters, is also full of unimagined wonders suggesting that the Gone Away world is not only the ending of our world but also the beginning of a new one that should not be feared but rather accepted.
Third, we have the equally solid SF idea of a shift in reality that suddenly and irrevocably changes the world, leaving people to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and deal with the consequences of this carnage.
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.
As these four ideas are slowly moved into place, the book seems to be hurtling towards a point in the plot where they will all be pulled together and plaited into a final thematic arc that will fuel the book's conclusion and make some profound point about the gap between our memory of the world and the world itself. Unfortunately, this conclusion never arrives. The big reveal seems clearly at some point to have been intended as a big conclusion, but rather than pulling all of his thematic threads together and ending the book, Harkaway allows them all to slip through his fingers and veers off through some under-written later chapters before finally crash-landing the book with an utterly underwhelming action film finale in which the hero fights the villain, saves the world, and rides off into the sunset.
Had The Gone-Away World ended around the 350-page mark, it would have been a flawed but mightily impressive debut. Unfortunately we did not get this book. Instead we are left with a ruinously bloated 550-page novel that spends the bulk of its length building towards a climax that simply never comes. In fact, so awful and self-contained are these final 200 pages that I cannot help but wonder whether they were not added at some later date. Perhaps someone suggested a more traditional ending, or perhaps Harkaway himself could not make his desired ending work, prompting him to try and come up with a new one (possibly at short notice). Either way, the result is a much impoverished work from an author with a sickening amount of potential.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the U.K., where he writes and teaches.