The Gone-Away World

The Gone-Away World is a narrative cloudburst loaded with mordant dust devils whirling close to Iain M. Banks, a philosophical cumulus reminiscent of Neal Stephenson, and a bold downpour of mimes, gong fu, and other torrential tomfoolery. It is not, despite Nick Harkaway’s suggestive nom de plume, a svelte Jazz Age meditation on affluence and perception. But it does tackle these two conditions in a universe close to ours, one that involves Cuba joining the United Kingdom and the All Asian Investment and Progressive Banking Group standing in for the World Bank. Harkaway has written a first novel with an assured and clever voice, riddling his readers with brio and a few unusual thought experiments.

Anagram-friendly character names like Dr. Andromas (Drama Son — the heir to Snow Crash‘s Hiro Protagonist?) and Evander Soames (Endeavors Same? A Daemon Serves?) flutter through the book like a wintry gale tormenting a Jumble enthusiast trying to hold a newspaper at a shelterless bus stop. There are abrupt flashbacks, seemingly gratuitous monologues that are later informed by unexpected story developments, and a good deal of madcap energy. Much as the Matrix trilogy popularized Jean Baudrillard’s idea of images and symbols transforming reality into a simulation, Harkaway’s wild tangents reflect the unusual premise of a world in which holes and blank expanses likewise inform how one exists.

This is a place in which dead letters are referred to as zombie letters. One walk-on character, struggling with his percolable condition, quite literally, “has a hole in the front of his head, but there is very little blood and he is still alive.” Likewise, the unnamed narrator informs us of a building’s facade following “a blocky in-and-out pattern like a ratchet or the tread of a sneaker” but confesses a page later that “this place had no sense of its own ridiculousness.” Through this tricky aperture between thought and absurdity, likewise suggested by the aptly named Project Albumen (contained within this building), Harkaway squeezes in everything but the kitchen sink.

The novel beginswith a dystopic scenario in which the Earth has been circumscribed by the Jorgmund Pipe, delivering a fresh oil known as FOX (no apparent relation to the conservative news network) to the remainder of humanity. It is the aftermath of a war, or rather an un-war, that erupted in a small nation but quickly led to a global-superpower showdown and the use of Go Away Bombs, “vacuum cleaners of information” that prove more devastating than a casual nuclear detonation. Through “demonstrative world-editing,” the bombs simply erase everything in the way. Venture too far from the Pipe and you’ll find yourself in unreal territory, a wasteland occupied by war victims who are, like the Remade in China Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels, “Made people who weren’t born, who were just made up or who are split in half so that there’s two of them. Or more.”

This dire dilemma may account for the narrator’s insouciant attitude to violence. We know that the narrator exists to look after a boisterous lunkhead named Gonzo Lubitsch, but the hero’s description of a torture room (“I was not expecting single-bulb lighting and iron buckets to pee in”) reads like copy from a demented travel brochure. Of an assassin named Moustache, we are informed, “He killed ergonomically, so that later, when he was reporting to his evil moustache boss, he would not have an uncomfortable twinge in his shoulders.” But as we get to know our hero further, Harkaway posits the possibility that his existence could be just as tenuous as those who exist away from the pipe, half-formed in the wasteland.

Harkaway also uses his novel to offer a few thoughtful meditations on the Hobbesian social contract. When the narrator needs a job, he is told by prospective employer Crispin Hoare that there is an annex attached to his public record. Crispin introduces Jon Agar’s concept of the Government Machine, the complication of British civil service founded upon a mechanized state of expertise. Harkaway uses this moment to reintroduce perception into the quagmire: “A lot of rather ordinary people will get repeatedly investigated with increasing severity until the Government Machine either finds enemies or someone very high up indeed personally turns the tide.” This complication also serves as an intriguing postmodern conceit. For if the hero cannot enter into a proper quid pro quo with the government that is expected to protect him, how then can his identity be corralled within the ever-shifting world presented within the narrative?

Harkaway stacks his sentences with copious clauses and plentiful modifiers, as if his narrator’s very existence will dissipate if he stops spinning his tale. Sometimes, the narrator describes details in a bawdy manner suggesting a man rambling on in a tavern. An office is described as “vapid, flashy, with a desk made for after-hours sex” and a piping machine is portrayed as “the love child of a bulldozer and a shopping mall.” Sometimes, the narrator ventures further into over-the-top swagger: “The experience of being shot in the gut at close range is pretty much as advertised.”

Harkaway’s prose fleshes out this porous landscape with pockmarked imagery. A side character is given “the look which snowmen acquire the day after their construction, of being partly dissolved and cavernous.” Underneath a circus tent, “a murmur of approbation filters out through the canvas backdrop.” While Harkaway doesn’t go as far as Alfred Bester in using word diagrams to depict a textual environment caving in on the character, these descriptive indicators nevertheless present a grand irony: a vast, verdant forest of words shading little more than blankness.

However, when a major plot twist occurs, something unusual happens in the last hundred pages. The narrator’s cheery bulleted lists begin to disappear, as if Harkaway himself has run out of narrative ammunition. Alas, so too does the piss-and-vinegar in Harkaway’s zippy piston engine. The hero lacks the luster and bravado established in the early pages, and the novel begins to paddle away from its enticing stream of ideas and humor.

But if we can pardon Neal Stephenson for Snow Crash‘s abrupt ending, we can likewise forgive Harkaway. The Gone-Away World offers a natural synthesis between the cyberpunk novels of the ’90s and the roomy ruminations of contemporary British novelists like David Mitchell. It is a cathartic kick-start from a very promising talent.