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.