The Gone-Away World
by Nick Harkaway
In the film Sleep With Me, Quentin Tarantino makes a cameo appearance in which he delivers a monologue about how Top Gun is actually a film about a man's struggle with his homosexuality. It's a hilarious bit of movie geekdom and well worth finding on YouTube if only because it's difficult to imagine Tom Cruise's lawyers letting a film maker get away with it now. Reading this book is at times like being stuck in a conversation with Tarantino at a party, with his geeky knowledge of film, his energetic delivery, all of it accompanied by plenty of gesticulation and likely to end with some spittle on your shirt-front.
Nick Harkaway is John Le Carré's son, let's get that out of the way. He was also reportedly paid a £300,000 advance for this, his début novel, let's get that out of the way too. However you may feel about either of those things, the success or failure of this book is bound to depend on how you feel about a novel which reads like a sci-fi/horror/eco/kung-fu/tech thriller/war movie mash up - with a twist (which I'm afraid I guessed near the beginning, leading to a sense of deflation when it was revealed after 400 pages). Whatever the weaknesses, there is no doubt that Harkaway writes with immense energy and imagination, creating an extraordinary vision of an alternative Earth devastated by catastrophic war.
The Go Away War is so called after the weapon which almost leads to the destruction of all life on the planet. The Go Away bomb doesn't destroy the enemy so much as make it disappear by removing the information which holds our atoms together as us rather than anything else. It is supposed to be clean, with no fallout, but in a thrilling set piece Harkaway shows the awful consequences of playing with physics on an elemental level ('matter stripped of information becomes Stuff...it hangs around, desperate for new information. It becomes hungry'). With millions dead or missing the construction of the Jorgmund Pipe creates the Liveable Zone, a narrow band around the planet which remains habitable for the survivors and it is in this environment we meet Gonzo Lubitsch and his crew. As part of the pioneering group who built the pipe they are the first to be called in when a fire threatens to destroy it, and by extension of course the human race. Gonzo is a hero in the American mold; jock turned special operative he knows how to do, he is a man of action. Our narrator however is not Gonzo but his right hand man if you like and he, like Tarantino, has a brain which bounces from here to there like a pinball, making it pretty hard going to keep up at times. When he has a wound superglued together he can't resist letting us know that 'this is what superglue is actually for'. This is what I mean by geeky, the text is punctuated by interruptions and parentheses, the spittle on your shirt. Every now and then a little gem comes along (as when he describes government as 'not so much a journey as a series of emergency stops and arguments over which way to hold the map') but it's not enough to make you want to get any closer to him.
There is a ridiculously colourful cast including Master Wu the gong-fu teacher, Ike Thermite the leader of a mime troupe and Ronnie Cheung military fight instructor with an appropriately filthy vocabulary. Some work better than others but it's difficult to really connect with any of them. It's broad brushstrokes all the way in a novel heavily influenced by films like The Matrix, Karate Kid, Apocalypse Now and Fight Club. It could have been an anti-war novel to rival Catch 22 or On The Beach but it lacks the focus required to go down as a classic. What it really needs is a hefty edit. Maybe the publishers wanted to get their money's worth and there are certainly a lot of ideas bustling around its 530 pages but they could have been marshalled better. The real strengths lie not in its variety but the genuine horror of Harkaway's depiction of conflict. After finishing it I was glad I'd picked up my copy for £4 rather than the cover price of £18. I wonder how Heinemann are feeling about the £300,000 advance now.