Review: The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Here’s what happened. The lovely and beautiful Jeanne, who has probably the best blog name out there and is also just an awesome person, sent me The Gone-Away World for my birthday last year. It came in the mail and was a complete and delightful surprise, and I was so touched, and I started reading The Gone-Away World right away because Jeanne said it was one of her favorite books ever. Immediately had no idea what the hell was happening. There were, like, pigs? And some sort of pipe disaster that maybe had something to do with radiation? And lots of made-up/repurposed words that I didn’t understand? And I was like, Oh hell, not only am I not going to like Jeanne’s favorite book, I’m not going to like the favorite book she sent me as a present. To avert this disaster, I swiftly shelved it on my shelves and did not read it anymore. Because apparently I subscribe to the ostrich school of problem-solving.

PSA: Ostriches don’t really do that. You may continue to use them as a metaphor as I have done above, but do please be aware that they don’t really bury their heads in the sand. I mean, how would that even work? Would they dig it with their beaks? In which case the danger would have definitely already eaten them/passed by the time they dug a hole deep enough to bury their heads in? Would they use preexisting holes? What if they weren’t near a hole?

Anyway, I realized recently that it had been almost a whole year since Jeanne so sweetly sent this book to me and I ungratefully failed to read it, and I was like, Oh screw it, I am the worst gift recipient in the whole world, I am going to read this book already. If I hate it I’ll just say, It was very inventive!

The Gone-Away World is a difficult book to describe. It’s a dystopian novel about a world only made livable by the Jorgmund Pipe, now on fire and threatening the realm of safety that has been carved out in the wake of a war that has left whole chunks of the world missing. As our narrator and his friends set out to repair the Pipe — a dangerous mission from which they know they will not all return — we are sent backward in time to hear the story of the narrator’s life before the war, and his friendship (really his brotherhood) with Gonzo Lubitsch.

Reading Jeanne’s review, I observe that she, too, had a difficult time getting into this book. It’s a difficult book to get into! The first chapter drops you in media res, and you think you know exactly what kind of world you’re in — post-nuclear probably, lots of radiation poison and other unpleasant fallout — but can I just tell you now? That is not the world you’re in. When the book finally reached the point of explaining all the things that had baffled and alienated me in the first chapter, it turned out to be an incredibly inventive sort of dystopia, the sort of thing that has weird and new possibilities that you wouldn’t have thought of and haven’t seen before. So that was excellent. I was completely surprised by how much I liked the parts of the book that dealt with the destruction and rebuilding of the world. It was a new, fascinating, awesome kind of dystopia, and I was sad when the book ended because I wanted to see more of that world.

(I realize I just said the book was inventive, which is what I said I was going to say if I didn’t like the book, but I did like the book. It’s just difficult to talk about it without saying it was inventive.)

The structure of the book, another thing that maddened me because I hate it when a book/movie/TV show is like “APOCALYPTIC SCENE OF CATASTROPHE” and then flashes a scene of bucolic pleasantness with a caption of “Six months previously”, turned out to make much better sense than I initially thought. This is a deliberately vague remark, the purpose of which is to assure readers who, like me, have trouble getting into the book, that there is a method to Nick Harkaway’s madness. Have faith, and he will pay thee all. Is what I’m saying. The sensibleness of flashing back will strike you in time, and you will go “Oh that’s why he wrote it this way.” I promise that will happen.

The writing didn’t charm me as much as it did Jeanne — sometimes it was funny, but sometimes it felt arch and fake. That wasn’t a huge deal, though, because so much insane stuff kept happening. So much insane stuff. All the insanest stuff. Basically,The Gone-Away World does not so much zig when you expect it to zag, as KAPLOOEY when you expect it to zag. And I say that in the best possible sense. As events unfold, there will be points at which you think you know what’s going to happen, but I promise you, you do not know what is going to happen. Like, at all.

Thank you, wonderful Jeanne! I am a dumb bunny for not reading The Gone Away World sooner, and I’ll definitely be trying Nick Harkaway’s new book Angelmaker when my library gets it in.

Lots of other reviews! Check them out here.

28 thoughts on “Review: The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway

    • Ummmmmmmmm, I don’t know! I think I would have a hard time telling ANYONE if they would like this book. It’s completely different from anything else I’ve read before.

      Before I click your link, I’m going to posit that it says you should lie down on the ground and cover your head with your hands. This is knowledge I gleaned from The Gods Must Be Crazy II (best damn movie ever, I am not kidding at all, watch it tomorrow on Netflix and your life will be better).

      Post-link-clicking report: Nailed it. NAILED IT.

  1. I like weird and usual books that are somewhat confusing at times, so this one sounds like it might be really interesting for me. And also, Ostriches are kind of mean. They run after you and try to peck you in the head if you get too close and they don’t want you to. I don’t really like them. OK, that is all. I am going off to get this books now!

  2. Wow, I wonder if I would like a dystopia? ha ha, just kidding! But a weird dystopia, I’m not sure…. And yes, not only are ostriches mean (although I would be mean too if someone were always trying to pluck my feathers and use me for meaningless metaphors), but geese are even meaner!

    • I don’t know, ummmm….Jeanne says like 70 pages? I can’t decide if you’d like this! I don’t know whether to recommend it to you or not. It might be a little weirder than you’d enjoy.

  3. Definitely sounds like a book for me – I love dystopias, and can definitely cope with weird – which is just as well as it’s been in my TBR pile for some time – must locate and read!

  4. Based on cartoons, I think I thought ostriches had some kind of dirt/head teleportation exchange, where they stuck their head in and the dirt disappeared to make way for the head with an audible “pop.” This would be fantastic evidence for evolution of dirt.

    • Is that what happens in cartoons? I have a woefully cartoon-deprived life because we weren’t allowed to watch cartoons as kids and I just never got in the habit.

  5. Oh isn’t it awful when you think you’re not going to enjoy a book some dear friend has sent! Such a sinking feeling, and yet so hard to commit to something that begins unpromisingly. You did well to get back into it, (makes you an even better friend than if you’d just read something you loved straight off) and I’m very very glad it turned out to be a good experience in the end.

    • Yes! I sometimes resist being lent books by people I’m fond of, because I just hate having to give the book back and admit that I didn’t like it. But of course it’s lovely when you do end up liking the book in question.

  6. I am incredibly amused. See, the part you’re being vague about is the main reason I sent you the book (besides that I want all the people I like to read this book). It is one of the only books in the world that I don’t want to see any spoilers for! It has a secret. And yes, Mumsy, that secret is worth 70 measly pages of wading through, even if you’re not as easily amused as I am. And Jenny, his second novel has less of the arch and fake. Also, he is an incredibly nice person. I don’t usually care what kind of person the author is when I read a book, but it’s always nice to think that if you actually pay some of your hard-earned money for a book, it’s going to someone decent.
    By the way, apropos of nothing, Nick Harkaway and John Scalzi just started a new internet meme, reminiscent of the unicorns vs zombies one, about elephants vs dragons. The elephants are from Angelmaker (Harkaways’s second novel, just out).

    • *laughs* Well, I did not find out the secret. I did not find out the secret(s) and I did not tell the secret(s) to Mumsy. One good thing about the secret (er, spoilers, everyone else, sort of!) is that telling somebody the secret at the beginning of the book would make ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE. You really have to be pretty far in before revealing the secret would make any sense at all, and by then — presumably — you’d already be hooked.

      Good to know about the second book! I will definitely be reading it. Also because I do sort of care what kind of person the authors of my books are. I like them to be nice like Neil Gaiman, not homophobic jerks like Orson Scott Card.

  7. You write the most lovely and descriptive reviews. I adore them. The part about zigging and zagging and kaplooey makes total sense to me. I want to read Nick Harkaway, but I might start with his new one which sounds a little less off-the-way than this book.

    • I actually don’t know anything about his new book. Just the title! I will try to read it soon in any case, so I haven’t fussed about finding out what the plot is. Although honestly? It HAS to be less weird than this one.

  8. I stumbled here from the booksnob’s site…so glad I did! Love your writing style and had so much fun reading your old blog post…I’ve bookmarked your site and will definitely be back for more! You’ve earned yourself a new “regular.”

  9. This is one of my very favorite books. I think I have read it 5 or 6 times. The big shocker left me speechless for hours. I immediately started the book over again. I assure you, this is unlike any book you have ever read. I read it after hearing a review on NPR.

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